A Universal Truth

Featured Blogger / by Nick Anthis /

The universality of basic science may be the deepest link between the US and the Muslim world.

The concept of scientific diplomacy has been floated since the early days of the Obama administration by such high-ranking officials as Nina Fedoroff of the State Department and Harold Varmus of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. President Obama himself, in an address at Cairo University in June, called for increased scientific collaboration between the US and the Muslim world—specifically the creation of new “centers of scientific excellence” and the appointment of “science envoys” to Muslim countries. This call for new science envoys dovetails with a bill sponsored by Richard Lugar (R-IN) currently being considered in the Senate (S. 838) and is the aspect of Obama’s scientific diplomacy strategy on which there has been the most progress to date. Sheila Jasanoff explores this subject in greater depth in an article published today in Seed.

In more general terms, scientific diplomacy is an idea that makes a great deal of sense. Most simply, in our 21st century society, science and technology so permeate our everyday lives that few areas of government policy can regularly ignore such considerations. More poignantly, however, science is fundamentally an international endeavor. Even the least senior scientists (i.e. grad students and post-docs) may travel internationally at a frequency that rivals that of the more senior members of many other professions. A lab in the US may have ongoing scientific collaborations (or heated competitions) with labs in Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. Advances in technology have aided these collaborations tremendously, making differences in time zones the only real obstacle still preventing regular face-to-face communication (by voice-over IP video conferencing) between scientists on opposite sides of the globe. Finally, scientific findings are published in international journals accessible to anyone who reads English and whose institution subscribes to the journal (although the rise of open-access publishing is easing this final constraint).

This internationality stems from another fundamental aspect of science: that its truths are universal. Independent of location, culture, or religion, the process of evaluating scientific knowledge should—in principle, at least—remain the same. Of course, as Jasanoff points out, the successful application of scientific findings to address societal needs is affected by all of these subjective factors. But the universality of basic science may be the deepest link that the US and the Muslim world share. (On the flipside, we also share many of the same enemies of scientific progress; as in the US, creationism has flourished in many majority-Muslim countries.) Today, the US can still claim to be the world’s greatest scientific power—though maybe only tenuously. A thousand years ago, however, the Middle East would have unequivocally held that designation—another common link and an important reminder that preeminence is not permanent.

So, where does this leave us in terms of actual scientific diplomacy? Centers of scientific excellence and science envoys are both good ideas, and I expect that we’ll see a vamped-up corps of science envoys in the very near future. Beyond these actions, though, the Obama administration should look for ways to encourage further collaborations between practicing scientists in the US and the Muslim world, and programs along these lines may be simpler to implement and more likely to yield the desired results. New education and travel grants to send American scientists to work in the Middle East and elsewhere—and vice versa—would be one avenue. One of the greatest gifts the US has to offer the outside world is graduate education at our many research universities, and we need to ensure that this option is as accessible as possible—and not hampered by the visa and immigration difficulties that became so much more common after 9/11. Additional grants to bring outside scientists to the US to attend conferences or workshops or to meet with collaborators could also be helpful.

These actions should help foster the exchange of ideas between scientists in the US and Muslim countries. New scientific collaborations will help advance scientific progress and may help focus resources to pertinent problems that would otherwise be neglected. Such collaborations also have the immediate benefit of improving the scope and impact of the scientists’ work, assisting with career advancement and raising the prestige of local research communities. In the long run, the hope is that this exchange of scientific ideas will contribute to greater cross-cultural appreciation and understanding. Given the vast resources that have been wasted creating an enormous credibility gap between the US and the Muslim world (particularly through the Iraq war), scientific diplomacy is certainly a cause worth funding.

Originally published September 17, 2009

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