The partial budget blueprint released by the White House recently will put U.S. leadership in science and technology at serious risk if Congress goes along. In addition to the obvious damage that would result from the proposed $5.8 billion cut at NIH, the $2 billion cut in applied energy R&D, the $900 million cut in DOE’s Office of Science, the abolition of ARPA-E, and the research cuts at NOAA and EPA, a less immediately obvious potential casualty would be U.S. scientific cooperation with a wide variety of other countries on a wide variety of topics.
These international collaborative activities are actually likely to be first on the chopping block for three reasons: the tendency of departments and agencies under budget stress to prioritize protection of purely domestic programs; the presumption among many members of Congress that international cooperation is a one-way street operating to the disadvantage of the United States; and the Trump Administration’s “America First” stance (which is, perhaps not surprisingly, the top line in the title of the March budget document).
I have spent much of a long career in science and technology participating in and building international research collaborations with Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, and Russia, among others. As President Obama’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology for the past eight years, I had responsibility for overseeing U.S. participation in six of our most important bilateral science and technology cooperation agreements, including those with Russia and China, and for supporting the State Department in its lead role implementation bilateral S&T agreements with another forty nations.
I know, therefore, how international S&T cooperation is structured, how it works, and how it benefits U.S. S&T capabilities in the national interest and also, as a huge bonus, how it serves this country’s diplomatic aims. I find the implications of the Administration’s budget proposal¾and the President’s overall zero-sum stance on international interactions¾to be deeply dismaying.
There are several good reasons the U.S. government, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, has long seen fit to encourage and support international S&T cooperation with a wide variety of partners:
- Science and technology are being pursued and advanced all across the globe. Working with other countries can provide access to valuable additional expertise, and it shares costs, allows pursuing complementary lines of effort, and helps avoid duplication of effort. The result is faster progress on common goals, at lower cost to U.S. funders.
- Accelerating joint progress through collaboration is even more valuable when the goals are global public goods—e.g., combating epidemic disease, curing cancer, reducing oil dependence, mitigating climate change, improving nuclear-reactor safety¾in which progress anywhere provides benefits everywhere.
- Even when the benefits of S&T collaboration appear to be more one-sided, as when the United States collaborates with technically less advanced countries to help them build their scientific capacity and apply science and technology to development goals, this country reaps significant benefits: the resulting advances make the partner countries less likely to become sources of major refugee flows and regional political instability as well as more likely to advance economically to the point of becoming significant markets for U.S. products.
- Mutually beneficial S&T collaboration is also beneficial diplomatically, as the benefits provide a positive rationale for maintaining decent relations even in the face of disagreements on other issues.
In addition to these generally well recognized benefits, international S&T collaboration foments personal relationships of mutual respect and trust across international boundaries that can bring unexpected dividends when the scientists and engineers involved end up in positions to play active roles in international diplomacy around issues with significant S&T content—e.g,, climate change, nuclear arms control, and intellectual property.
Let me offer just a couple of examples, from my own experience, of how this last category of serendipitous benefit can materialize.
The United States and the Soviet Union agreed in 1958 to declassify and collaborate on research on harnessing fusion energy for peaceful purposes. That relationship has lasted to this day and has entailed extensive exchanges of scientists and equipment between the major fusion research centers in the two countries. It was through the U.S.-Soviet cooperation in fusion energy that, in the early 1970s, I met Evgeny Velikhov, then the head of the Soviet fusion program and a Vice President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. We became friends and, together, initiated additional U.S.-Soviet collaborations on comparative assessment of fission and fusion energy options and on energy end-use efficiency.
In the mid-1990s, when I was Chair of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Velikhov was playing a leading role in a counterpart committee on the Russian side, we launched a dialog on protection and disposition of plutonium made surplus in both countries by reductions in the respective nuclear arsenals. When Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin decided to create a bilateral presidential commission to reconcile differences between the two sides on this topic, they made me and Velikhov the co-chairs. The group’s report helped broker a breakthrough in U.S.-Russian agreement on management of this issue, no small thanks to my long-standing relationship of trust with Velikhov.
I became involved in international collaboration with China on science and technology starting in 1984. In the course of cooperative work on energy R&D strategy, energy end-use efficiency, clean-coal technology, and air pollution, I met and became friends with a number of Chinese experts who later became key figures in the Chinese political leadership. Notable among these were Xie Zhenhua, one-time head of China’s counterpart to the EPA and later China’s chief climate negotiator, and Wan Gang, who became China’s Minister of Science and Technology at about the same time as I became President Obama’s Science Advisor. These relationships proved extremely valuable in building the behind the scenes U.S.-China cooperation on climate policy that helped make the December 2015 Paris agreement possible.
A further example—one in which I was not personally involved—demands mention: the crucial role of Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Iranian Atomic Energy Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in negotiating the April 2015 “nuclear deal” that moved Iran off the path toward acquiring nuclear weapons. Moniz was previously chair of the MIT physics department as was also closely engaged with the nuclear engineering department there; Salehi earned his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at MIT. While the two did not interact during the time both were at MIT, that common background and the mutual respect associated with it led to a degree of collegiality and common cause that enabled them to negotiate successfully the intricate and critical technical details of the nuclear deal. I am convinced that without the bond that came from Salehi having attended MIT, the nuclear deal would not have come to fruition.
Today, the direct and indirect benefits of international collaboration in science and technology are more needed than ever. S&T-laden global challenges abound that are too big, too complex, and too interlinked to be tackled only through the separate efforts of individual nations¾climate change, epidemic diseases new and old, antibiotic resistant bacteria, marine pollution, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to name a few.
Beyond the obvious case for international collaboration to make it possible (and affordable) to meet these challenges, the need for the diplomatic benefits of international S&T collaboration on projects in the mutual interest of the participants is likewise at a high point. The relations between the United States and, variously, Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, and even many traditional allies are tense or fragile. Clearly, this is a time to step up this country’s collaborations with others in science and technology, not a time to step back.