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Strengthening Science Abroad

U.S. federal agencies examine their role in capacity building in developing countries

by Linda Wang
March 14, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 11

Credit: Erik Kurniawan/U.S. Embassy Jakarta
As part of the U.S. Science Envoy Program, Alberts (left) recently met with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Credit: Erik Kurniawan/U.S. Embassy Jakarta
As part of the U.S. Science Envoy Program, Alberts (left) recently met with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

As developing countries continue to build their capacity in science, technology, and engineering, U.S. federal agencies are becoming increasingly engaged with these countries in areas ranging from global health to science diplomacy to climate change.

A panel of experts representing various U.S. federal agencies described their efforts in international scientific engagement and capacity building during the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, held last month in Washington, D.C. The theme of this year’s meeting was “Science Without Borders.”

One agency that has several international programs is the National Institutes of Health. These programs invest heavily in global health, said Linda E. Kupfer, deputy director of international science policy, planning, and evaluation and the dean of education at NIH’s John E. Fogarty International Center for Advanced Study in the Health Sciences.

Kupfer described Fogarty’s efforts to track how many global health research trainees return to their country of origin. “For us, success is only if people go back to their country and work there,” she said. “If they stay here, that’s not capacity building in their country.” Kupfer noted that Fogarty has trained 4,000 scientists from low-income countries, and 90% of them have returned to their home country.

Fogarty also has a program focused on training U.S. researchers. The Framework Programs for Global Health supports efforts by universities to develop multidisciplinary global health curricula. Kupfer said that between 2005 and 2009, 35 grants were awarded under this program. In an evaluation, 27 awardees said that the program contributed to new academic degrees, a concentration, or certificate programs in global health.

“Our goal is to build global health capacity both in the U.S. and abroad,” says Kupfer. “We can’t do it alone, so we have to do it through partnerships both within the NIH and outside.”

Another international effort is the U.S. State Department’s Science Envoy Program, which President Barack Obama launched in 2009 (C&EN, Dec. 7, 2009, page 38). The program taps prominent scientists to bolster research collaboration and innovation with countries around the world.

At the AAAS meeting, envoy Bruce H. Alberts—editor-in-chief of Science magazine; professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco; and former president of the National Academy of Sciences—described his work in Indonesia and the importance of having people from other countries understand and learn from the U.S. Alberts was part of the first class of envoys, which included Elias A. Zerhouni, former director of NIH, and Ahmed Zewail, a chemistry and physics professor at California Institute of Technology and a Nobel Laureate.

“When you’re working to build capacity in other countries, a country like Indonesia for example, it’s critical that you find the right people on the other side to lead every bit of the effort,” Alberts said.

Among the recommendations to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology, Alberts explained, was to encourage the most talented young people from other nations to come to the U.S. to be educated (C&EN, Aug. 9, 2010, page 26).“Those people who have been in the U.S. are our best allies, and I saw that repeatedly when I went to Indonesian universities,” he said. “Those people who have trained in the U.S. had a very special feeling for the country” and took away ideas for how to improve their own school systems.

During his presentation, James M. Turner, director of the Office of International Affairs at the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, talked about the U.S. Global Development Policy, which includes federal initiatives on global climate change, food security, and health. “The foundation for all three is a healthy, thriving, resilient environment,” Turner said. “One does not have to choose between economic development and a healthy environment; they go hand-in-hand.

“Polluted water, shrinking water supplies, choking smog, unreplenished resources, and unfettered waste are not attributes of a prosperous sustainable economy,” he continued. “I am a firm believer that people want to do the right thing but often don’t know what the right thing is and/or do not have the ability to do it. The role of capacity building is to guide others to discovering the right thing in their context and equip them to do it.”

The panel was asked how U.S. federal agencies can build scientific capacity in developing countries during a time when the U.S. is facing a budget crisis.

“It seems that people have internalized why we need partners abroad to solve our problems at home and to solve their problems so that they can be healthier,” said Kupfer. “The link between economics and health, which used to be less clear, is now so clear that I don’t think it’s a really difficult argument to make.”

Alberts agreed, adding that partnerships are needed to tap into the tremendous amount of talent coming from countries such as China, India, and Brazil. “New ideas coming from other counties are going to help the U.S. as well as those countries,” he said.



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