PCAST Convenes to Discuss Scientific Diplomacy, Gives Go-Ahead to Health IT Report

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Publication date: 
21 July 2010

The sixth meeting of this Administration’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) featured an extensive discussion on science diplomacy, and updates on several pending PCAST reports.

On June 4, 2009 President Obama delivered a speech at Cairo University in Egypt that was billed as a reboot of US/pan-Arab relations. In his wide-ranging speech Obama offered the following on science:

“On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs. We'll open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, grow new crops. Today I'm announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.”

Bruce Alberts, Science Envoy to Indonesia and past President of the National Academy of Sciences began his presentation to PCAST with an overview of the science envoy missions. Alberts outlined four challenges: (1) Design a role for science envoys that dramatically demonstrates the potential and effectiveness of science diplomacy; (2) Create a science envoy “toolkit” and a set of principles to facilitate future efforts; (3) Help the US Government create a structure that optimally supports the science envoy mission (e.g. better synergy between agencies; science attaches in every major embassy); (4) Convince skeptics that there should be similar science envoys in all major nations, in addition to those that are Muslim-majority.

Alberts contends that there advantages to acting as a science envoy without being employed by the government, notably that he still spends most of his time in the scientific community, and as a volunteer can be “critical of the lack of coordination for example without feeling like we’re violating some loyalty to some agency.”

As Science Envoy to Indonesia, Alberts has focused on encouraging expansion of Indonesian science and technology capacity, placing an emphasis on connecting US and Indonesian scientists and institutions. Alberts pressed the case for cooperation with Indonesia’s receptive President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who has particular interest in inquiry-based science education. Indonesia’s current investment in science research is .06 percent of the nation’s GDP, a figure Yudhoyono pledged to increase.

Alberts has had some initial success, including the establishment of an annual “Frontiers of Science” meeting with 40 US and 40 Indonesian future science leaders, and a new US program to support university exchanges. There are presently 7,000 Indonesians in US universities and Alberts hopes to triple that number. Indonesia is considering creating a new merit-based research funding agency similar to the National Science Foundation. This is another opportunity for the US which aided China’s creation of a similar agency. Furthering science education cooperation, Indonesia recently sent an envoy of scientists and educators to a US conference on science education.

Alberts concluded his presentation by posing possible questions for a future PCAST study. Alberts suggested PCAST should examine the US’ role in building local merit-based institutions abroad, and suggested a report—Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology—as a guide. Alberts also recommended a study on the characteristics of successful international development models, better coordination of internal aid in the US government, and developing education resources for the internet.

Elias Zerhouni, who served under President Bush as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, is the current Science Envoy to Algeria. Zerhouni began with three observations. First, that all Gulf and North African nations see progress in science and technology as essential to their future. Second, that the US is uniformly seen as the example to follow and the preferred country to partner with for science and technology. And finally, visa and security issues since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon have prompted Gulf and North African countries to diversify their science and technology relationships and collaborations towards Europe and Asia.

Zerhouni emphasized that the science envoy program is already making strides and the international science community views the Obama Administration as “much more aligned, and much more synergistic in crystallizing efforts around science and technology.” Personal creditability is also said to be key, as Zerhouni explained. Skepticism around US outreach demands that science envoys have a strong background in the sciences and significant personal relationships in target countries.

Three areas—water, food and energy security, health and environment, and how best to establish evidence and merit-based systems—have emerged as common priorities across countries. To address these issues, Zerhouni outlines common needs in these countries. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs at every level are also needed; a problem compounded by unqualified teachers and large youth populations that beleaguer already thin education systems. Zerhouni also identified a need to establish stronger scientific cultures of inquiry as opposed to rote learning.

Zerhouni made several recommendations, including that the science envoy program should be maintained, coordination within the government on international development should be examined, and Memorandums of Understanding without funding should be avoided as they diminish trust.

Ahmed Zewail, Science Envoy to Egypt and PCAST member offered similar remarks. Ahmed, who called Obama’s Cairo speech “historic” and “well received,” argued for a new way of international partnership focused around science. Zewail said that he was surprised by a lack of science expertise at US embassies, a hindrance to science diplomacy. Zewail also urged Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren to bring the issue of scholarships and visa issues for foreign students to the attention of the President. Zewail ended with this anecdote, “After the June speech by President Obama the expectations were so high…. In Egypt you sell dates in Ramadan… the dates that were sold in Egypt, the highest priced date was named Obama…. The expectations were extremely high, so quite frankly the people would like to see action. Time is running out….”

PCAST members also gave updates on reports PCAST has been deliberating for many months. A report on how best to use health information technology to promote safety and reduce healthcare costs was approved unanimously with Craig Mundie, Chief Research and Strategy Officer at Microsoft recusing himself from voting.

PCAST’s much anticipated report on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education is expected in early September.

In related news, Obama used a recess appointment earlier in July to appoint Philip Coyle II as Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs in OSTP. While the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved his nomination by a vote of 17-6 on December 3, Coyle came under fire from Republicans, and an anonymous hold by a Senator was put on his appointment because of past statements on the last Administration’s plan to deploy ground-based missile defense systems in Europe.