US needs to do better in science diplomacy, White House says

29 Sep 2022 | News

Poor funding, short-term thinking and staff problems are hindering American collaboration in global science, says report to Congress. But it’s unclear what will be done about it

The White House. Photo:

The White House sent a report to Congress urging that the US do a better job supporting international research collaboration – and saying that currently it is losing out to China and other competitors because of poor organisation.

In science and technology, the US “is missing out on both short- and long-term strategic opportunities to engage internationally and is being left behind as a result,” said the report by the White House’s National Science and Technology Council. It cites several problems, including inadequate funding for international research, inexperienced or over-stretched government officials and, compared to China, an uncoordinated and short-term approach to science diplomacy.

It offers 16 recommendations to Congress to fix the problem – but it wasn’t immediately clear what the next steps will be, either from the Biden administration or in Congress. In response to questioning from Science|Business, Amanda Corcos of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy said, “OSTP plans to work with Congress and Federal departments and agencies to discuss future possible actions.”

Still, the mere fact that the White House chose to highlight the problem was welcomed by many.

“Music to my ears” is how the report was described by Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology and former research director-general at the European Commission. Despite the common values between the European Union and the US, he said, in his experience working with American officials “was not always easy.”  Among the obstacles is that US officials have to get Congressional approval for budgets every year. “So they could never commit themselves to long-term cooperation. They always had to go to the Hill for money,” Smits said.

Horizon a model

By contrast, the EU has a seven-year planning framework for its research programmes – and disputes over its annual budgets tend to be relatively minor. Indeed, the White House report cited the EU’s €95.5 billion, seven-year Horizon Europe R&D programme as a model for how to build international research coalitions and use science to achieve diplomatic aims. And it singled out three international projects where it thinks more US involvement is warranted: South Africa’s Square Kilometer Array radio telescope, the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan, and the Extreme Light Infrastructure laser in Romania.

The report was greeted with mixed emotions by US academic leaders, many of whom have long faulted US science diplomacy. “As I read the report,” said Richard Lester, associate provost for international relations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “it gives the US government only a modest grade in international S&T, and frankly there’s a lot to be modest about.”

More specifically, in Lester’s view “one of the most important recommendations in the report” is to study and improve the way the US attracts and retains foreign science and engineering talent. The report says foreign-born talent makes up 19% of the US science and engineering workforce, and contributes 1.7% to 1.9% of US gross domestic product – but the numbers have been declining since 2014. Other analysts say the issue gets caught up in the broader immigration dispute between Republicans and Democrats. This spring, the Biden administration as part of its Ukraine war response tried to make it easier for Russian researchers to immigrate – but Congress stripped the proposed visa language out of the legislation.

Since World War II, science diplomacy has been a standard tool of international relations – and one largely invented by the US as its economic and geopolitical clout increased. By 1960 the US accounted for 70% of global spending on R&D. Since then, although US public and private R&D budgets have risen, spending in other countries has risen faster. By 2019, the report says, the US share had dropped to 27% if global R&D spending, while China’s share had risen to 22%.

But the main problem, many analysts say, is in Congress itself. Very few Congressmen have any direct knowledge of science or technology. And for almost all, the main concerns in annual budget negotiations are domestic priorities and political sparring. Congress has rebuffed repeated attempts over the years to allocate more money for international research, or give agencies more authority to form partnerships – preferring to spend science money at home rather than abroad.

Whatever the reason, in its report the council – comprised of officials from across the federal R&D system – said formal US government action “generally has a near-future focus with few long-term commitments to international S&T.” That means many important international projects don’t get funded, or aren’t prioritised for their diplomatic importance. In the fragmented US science system – with a gaggle of independent science agencies each operating on their own – there is little effort to coordinate projects within the government, or with US diplomatic objectives, the report said.

Training needed

At the same time, it said, the science agencies don’t put enough effort into recruiting and training staff familiar with how the rest of the world works – and those who have that experience are often over-stretched between too many tasks. The resultant inaction or slow response to international opportunities “may signal that the United States is disinterested in scientific partnerships with some of our key allies and partners.”

The 16 recommendations for improvement include developing longer-term funding mechanisms for international collaboration, giving the State Department more budget and authority to pursue science diplomacy, and putting more effort into recruiting and training agency and diplomatic staff for scientific collaboration.

It also urged rethinking how and where it writes government-to-government science and technology agreements – a standard diplomatic tool in which two governments together write out high-minded collaboration goals. While potentially valuable, the report said, these agreements require labour-intensive follow-up meetings and may have little practical effect. “They can create unrealistic expectations of joint projects or ongoing agency engagements if not managed carefully,” the report said. The US has dozens of these agreements – STAs in diplomatic speak – but most are with developed countries. In contrast to China’s activism, the US today has only one STA in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the frank tone of the report, it’s still unclear whether anything will actually change in the way the government handles science diplomacy. As Smits put it, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let’s see how the good intentions will be put into practice.”

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