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Test Tube Diplomacy


Austin Dacey

July 2, 2010

The Obama administration has put science and technology at the forefront of U.S. “engagement with the Muslim world.” Will it work?

The New Library of Alexandria

An old tale has it that when Alexander the Great’s engineer was laying out the plans for Alexandria, drawing a chalk line along the future perimeter of the great harbor city, he ran out of chalk. To complete the job, sacks of barley flour were taken from the troops’ rations and poured out in a long line. Just then, an enormous flock of birds that had been resting nearby descended and began to devour the plans. The birds were taken as a bad omen, and Alexander despaired, forecasting his project’s doom. His seer Aristander countered that they were a good omen, signifying that the city would be so prosperous as to attract flocks of people from all around to gain sustenance from it.

The year since President Barack Obama delivered his address “On a New Beginning” at Cairo University in June 2009 has seen a stream of new visitors alighting on Alexandria. This month, an international conference, “Initiatives in Education, Science and Culture: Towards Enhanced US-Muslim Countries Collaborations,” was held at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the resplendent $200 million New Library of Alexandria that was completed in 2002 near the site of the ill-fated original. The year 2011 has been dubbed the U.S.-Egypt Year of Science. One year into the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with “the Muslim world,” science and technology are at the head of the flock, and the buzzword in the air is “science diplomacy.” What does it portend?

A New Era of Science Diplomacy?

In his Cairo speech, President Obama announced the U.S. would open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia and appoint “Science Envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, and grow new crops.” He also announced that the U.S. would partner with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (a fifty-seven-member coalition of Islamic states) to eradicate polio and promote child and maternal health.

In November 2009, the State Department announced the first three science envoys, whom the U.S. National Academies had chosen in consultation with the White House and State Department. In January they began their missions. Nobel Prize–winning chemical physicist Ahmed Zewail visited Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt. Former National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni traveled to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and UNESCO in Paris. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science and former National Academies president, visited Indonesia.

In an interview in Paris, Zerhouni sounded something like Julian Huxley in the heady days of UNESCO’s origins as he spoke of the opportunity to “break down barriers between peoples of the world in the exchange of knowledge, scientific and technological information, and to have, finally, for once in the world, the level of understanding we need to create an economic environment, social environment, a global environment where people will be able to understand each other.”1 Bruce Alberts could have taken a page from the Skeptical Inquirer, saying that every nation needs science “to create a more rational world” and that the ordinary citizen should be educated to “think like a scientist” and consult evidence. But he also noted that science diplomacy is itself an experiment.2

Does International Scientific Cooperation Work?

In that spirit, one might ask whether there is any evidence that scientific collaboration can increase amity between nations. Japanese-U.S. relations were furthered by the Cooperative Science Program that grew out of a meeting between President Kennedy and Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda in June 1961. Similar arrangements were made as part of Nixon’s normalization of relations with China. Of course, the most high-profile international scientific collaborations took place between the space programs of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. These reached their zenith with the Apollo-Suyuz Test Docking in 1975.

By late 1978, some in Congress had grown concerned that valuable U.S. technology was being obtained by the Soviets through such projects. By 1982, with Russian tanks rolling over Afghanistan and marshal law imposed in Poland, President Reagan permitted the U.S.-Soviet space cooperation agreement to lapse. When push comes to shove, sovereign states put their own interests first.

Meanwhile, throughout the Cold War, an international collective of scientists was pursuing a different strategy to limit the arms race. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, named for the town in Nova Scotia where the first conference was convened in 1957, followed on the London release in 1955 of the Russell-Einstein manifesto on the dangers of nuclear weapons. Pugwash was led by Joseph Rotblat, a British nuclear physicist who had resigned from the Manhattan Project on moral grounds. The aspirations of the group were expressed in its “Vienna Declaration,” a statement by the third conference, held in Kitzbühel and Vienna in 1958:

We believe that, as scientists, we have an important contribution to make toward establishing trust and co-operation among nations. . . . The ability of scientists all over the world to understand one another, and to work together is an excellent instrument for bridging the gap between nations and for uniting them around common aims. . . . It can contribute to the climate of mutual trust, which is necessary for the resolution of political conflicts between nations, and which is an essential background to effective disarmament. We hope scientists everywhere will recognize their responsibility, to mankind and to their own nations, to contribute thought, time, and energy to the furthering of international co-operation.

While Pugwash scientists quite noticeably did not end the Cold War, they are often credited with influencing international agreements such as the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the 1972 agreement on anti-ballistic missiles. Rotblat received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for his work.

What is most noteworthy for present purposes is that the Pugwash Conferences belonged to the realm of civil society, not public diplomacy. Strictly speaking, they were not international initiatives. The organizers did not work under the auspices of any government, indeed scrupulously endeavoring to avoid the appearance of national or ideological partisanship. Consequently, Pugwash conversation could take the form of the free-flowing improvisations of academic colleagues, not the forced cadences of diplomats.

On the Ground

At the opening session of the “Enhanced U.S.-Muslim Countries Collaborations” conference at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Farah Pandith, was emphatically vacuous: “We heard the President talk about his commitment to increase the way in which we are activating our mechanisms to work on these important challenges. . . . As we think about the challenges and moving towards getting a resolution on many of these very difficult subjects, we see an increase in the way in which we are building capacity on the ground.”

Science diplomacy in Muslim-majority countries is a big, audacious idea worthy of candidate Obama. The government-run Overseas Private Investment Corporation claims to have already raised close to $2 billion in investment for technology development projects. Such investment is badly needed in societies where science is stagnant. Even still, in the year since Cairo, the percentage of the Egyptian public with a favorable opinion of Obama has slipped from 41 to 31 percent.3 It is too soon to tell whether America’s new science diplomacy will put in place significant advances or leave behind just so many feathered words.

Austin Dacey

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Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.