Kerri-Ann Jones: The Role of Science Diplomacy in Advancing Global Health

With more than 3 million children dying around the world each year from malnutrition and nearly a billion people lacking access to clean drinking water, the role of science and technology in improving global health is more urgent than ever, a top U.S. State Department official told the recent AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, highlighted the Global Health Initiative—launched in May, 2009—as part of a snapshot of science-driven diplomatic initiatives being pursued by the administration of President Barack Obama. She noted that both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have spoken of the importance of science and technology in helping the United States achieve its policy goals.

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Kerri-Ann Jones

“Science and technology are an integral part of the rich fabric of our global engagement,” said Jones, who plays a key role at the State Department in addressing issues involving science, health and the environment. The role of S&T “is increasingly an element of foreign policy, both from a development and a diplomatic perspective.”

While the State Department has a broad portfolio for science diplomacy, Jones noted the particular importance of global health diplomacy. “Basic health conditions affect a nation’s ability to maintain economic growth and prosperity,” she told a 13 May session of the Forum.

The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy is the pre-eminent venue for discussion of policy issues involving science and technology. The 35th annual Forum, with more than 500 attendees, featured talks by key government officials and sessions on such topics as R&D funding, societal impacts of science and technology, new approach to U.S.-European research cooperation, and roles for S&T in national security.

The Global Health Initiative is a six-year, $63-billion program aimed at addressing some of the most pressing health issues, including maternal and child health, family planning, infectious disease control and neglected tropical diseases. The administration also is maintaining a commitment to existing programs, Jones said, including a Bush administration initiative to stem the global spread of HIV/AIDS.

The programs in the Global Health Initiative will be woman-centered (recognizing the central role of women in health care at the village level and beyond) and they will be administered by the host countries, Jones said. Research and development are at the core of the initiative, she said, including questions on how emerging pathogens cause disease.

The pursuit of such basic research depends on collaboration across borders, Jones said, and nations such as Kenya, Mali, Tanzania, Haiti, and Peru have been participating. The initiative also puts an emphasis on operational questions, such as how to scale up interventions to reach large populations and how best to reach marginalized populations. The administration’s focus on global health diplomacy also includes pandemic preparedness and response.

“We are still experiencing an H1-N1 (flu) pandemic,” said Jones, a former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. While the current outbreak did not involve the more virulent H5-N1 avian influenza, health officials worldwide are still on alert. Jones recently attended a conference in Hanoi of 71 nations, regional authorities, and institutions on pandemic response, including how to strengthen animal and human disease surveillance systems.

Handling of poultry is one issue, and the best procedures do not necessarily transfer easily from one nation to another, Jones said. As part of her efforts in the field to better understand avian influenza, Jones—who has a background in molecular biology and biochemistry—said she had “spent a lot of time with chickens lately.”

Jones also mentioned the administration’s Feed the Future initiative, aimed at assisting universities and national laboratories abroad in research on nutrition, food supplements and advanced agricultural processes.

In addition to the projects related to global health, Jones also mentioned some country-to-country and regional agreements that have a strong science component. Among them:

  • The U.S. China Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment, which establishes eco-partnerships between universities, utilities, and municipalities. As an example, Jones noted an alliance by scientists at Tulane University in New Orleans and East China Normal University in Shanghai on ways to protect, repair, and restore wetlands.
  • The Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks, organized by the eight-nation Arctic Council to provide sharing of high-quality data on environmental and societal indicators for an important and vulnerable region of the world.
  • The Congo Basin Forest Partnership, an association of more than 40 governments, international organizations, private sector and civil society representatives that is meant to improve the sustainable management of the Congo Basin. The partnership produces a biennial “State of the Forest” report on Central Africa.
  • U.S.-Egypt Joint Science and Technology Fund, a program that has led to collaborative research on such topics as water, coral reef health, remote sensing, and cybersecurity. The two nations also are planning a U.S-Egypt joint year for science in 2011, Jones said.

Jones noted that the State Department also provides administrative support for the science envoys program. In November, Secretary Clinton appointed Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, Science Translational Medicine Chief Scientific Adviser Elias Zerhouni, M.D., and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail to serve as the country’s first science envoys. They were named, Clinton said, “to fulfill President Obama’s mandate to foster scientific and technological collaboration.”

Jones said that Zerhouni was well received in recent travels to Egypt and North Africa, where he discussed, among other things, ways to improve access by scientists in the region to leading research journals.

And in a reminder that informal contacts between scientists and policy makers also can open doors to international cooperation, Jones remarked: “All of us in this room are science diplomats” and can play a role in demonstrating the value of science to the world.

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