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Science And Diplomacy

by Sergio Jorge Pastrana
June 7, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 23

The following is a guest editorial by Sergio Jorge Pastrana, foreign secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences

Almost half a year has passed since the Presidents of Cuba and the U.S. first announced that they would engage in conversations with the aim to restore full diplomatic relations. After more than 50 years of stalemate, the historic deal last December marked the beginning of a new chapter for both nations. So far, discussions involving teams of negotiators from both countries have provided a series of further announcements, including one that heralded the opening of full embassies in both countries, an event that should be expected soon. But alongside those diplomatic discussions, talks have started on a number of issues that are important for the societies of both nations. Law enforcement, migration, communications, and many other subjects have been visited. Among them, prominently, there have been talks about science and research in a number of areas that are of immediate concern to both societies.

During many years of estrangement, scientists from both countries have always found a way to talk and exchange ideas. From physicians and meteorologists, to engineers, biologists, chemists, and physicists, many have in the past found a way to exchange information on common interests, scientific trends, state-of-the-art technology and knowledge, and everything else scientists, engineers, and scholars talk about when they get together. This was first done in international venues, but beyond that, many scientific societies in both countries decided to lend a hand to colleagues and friends on the other side of the political divide. I must say that meteorologists, chemists, and physicists have been among those who have done it consistently over the years.

During my tenure as the representative of the Cuban Academy of Sciences to the International Council for Science and the InterAcademy Partnership, I have had the opportunity to meet an impressive array of excellent scientists from both countries. Over the years, they have successfully built longtime relationships and scientific connections that have provided ground for all types of cooperation, including the publication of shared research papers, articles, and books. My only regret has been that almost all those exchanges have been done under the overpowering presence of the embargo on Cuba. As such, they have been subject to scarcity of funds, limitations to travel, difficulties sharing specimens and technical equipment, and the lack of an environment conducive to sharing research activities among scientists. For many, there was always the concern that they might be doing something questionable, to say the least, when they were just behaving as scientists doing what scientists are expected to do.

As society increasingly looks to scientists to find solutions to mounting global problems of every kind, one thing it must do is allow scientists to collaborate with their peers across the globe. With new diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S., science should take a significant preeminence, because it can provide the best example of how this new climate of cooperation between both countries may bring positive results.

So decision-makers should actively promote scientific activities and cooperation that could eventually provide solutions to those global challenges. Skeptics might say that there is little the U.S. scientific community can learn from their Cuban counterparts (I have heard that in the past). Those ideas come from bigotry and ignorance about how science and research are done, how new knowledge is produced and eventually further developed into technologies and innovations. Moreover, the subjects that scientists study are not limited by political boundaries: Whether those subjects are flocks of birds, schools of fish, invasive species, viruses, oil spills, hurricanes, dust clouds, tsunamis, acid rain, ignorance, or prejudice, they travel freely to be examined, understood, and managed beyond any border fence or wall. All those are phenomena that cannot be controlled and checked but with the application of knowledge. It is the duty of scientists to produce that new knowledge, and it is the duty of politicians and other decision-makers to enable them to do it.

Sergio Jorge Pastrana


This article has been translated into Spanish by and can be found here.

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