Issue Date: December 7, 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appointed the first U.S. science and technology envoys last month. These envoys are charged to bolster research collaboration and innovation with Muslim communities around the world. Their appointment fulfills a pledge by President Barack Obama to establish such envoys in his June 4 speech in Cairo.
The new envoys are Bruce Alberts, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, and past president of the National Academy of Sciences; Elias A. Zerhouni, a senior adviser to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and past director of the National Institutes of Health; and Ahmed Zewail, professor of chemistry and physics at California Institute of Technology and a chemistry Nobel Laureate.
The three scientists will meet with their counterparts in other nations across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, working to deepen partnerships in all areas of science and technology and to foster international collaborations to meet the challenges facing the world today, the State Department said in a statement.
“This is an intriguing and important challenge, and I hope that I can help shape a meaningful new program that can make a difference,” Alberts tells C&EN.
Zerhouni says he is pleased to see that the White House and State Department are moving forward to increase scientific partnerships. “I think this is a very good way of building up our science and technology diplomacy,” he says, “just as we built up our health diplomacy and partnerships in biomedical research.”
For Zewail, the envoy program is, like chemistry, about building bonds. “It’s very attractive to think about how science can build bonds between nations,” he says. “We can help the developing world and also create partnerships to build bridges and develop new bonds. That’s really the essence of it.”
Zewail believes that improving education can help make such bonds. “A major cause of problems in the world today is the lack of education and a lack of knowledge about each other,” he says. “We really believe that through education, by building on science and technology, we can help people utilize their human capacity to the fullest.”
Other areas needing improvement are basic national programs such as agriculture and health care, according to Zerhouni. “Developing a local capacity to inform people on science and technology solutions for water problems or understanding how to respond to public health threats like pandemics, are examples,” he says. “The question comes down to ‘What can you do that will make the greatest difference in the relationship over a period of time?’ ”
For all three envoys, the first task is to gather facts in order to advise the Obama Administration on what might be the best short-, mid-, and long-term strategies for helping countries meet their respective challenges. Each will visit a subset of Muslim communities and analyze their scientific and technology needs.
“We’re already working on trying to understand how best to do the fact finding in the most efficient manner,” Zerhouni says. Specifically, he notes, they are working out “how to do the scouting and the relationship building so we can help the White House and State Department come up with the most effective course of action.”
Each envoy will cover different nations, although not all the destinations have been finalized. Alberts, for example, says he will be focusing first on Indonesia and Pakistan. “I am scheduled to visit Indonesia in January. I will visit universities and meet with leading scientists and engineers, as well as with key policymakers, in order to decipher how the U.S. can best help Indonesia meet its own goals,” he says. “Science education will be one of my focus areas.”
Zewail expects that the first nation he will visit is Egypt, where he was born. “There are plans to meet heads of state in the region and also to meet the science establishment in order to find the best places for science projects and the best mechanisms for partnerships,” he says. “Egypt is the most populous nation in the Middle East. You need to know these people, what their key problems are, and their opinions on how to work on those problems.”
In addition to choosing these prominent scientists as envoys, the State Department announced that it will expand positions for environment, science, technology, and health officers at U.S. embassies.
“I think this is a great move, long overdue,” Zerhouni says. “I am a strong advocate of health and science diplomacy and having more science representation at our embassies. There are many countries in this world with very diverse communities, with different problems.” As a nation, he adds, we need to learn from others just as well as we teach others.
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