Leshner: U.S., Europe Share “an Obligation to Help Build Scientific Capacity in the Developing World”

BRUSSELS, Belgium—With the world moving into a new era of discovery and challenge, the United States and Europe must join to support emerging science communities and to help lead in the development of a global network of scientific knowledge, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner told an audience of high-level researchers and government officials.

Alan I. Leshner
[© European Communities, 2009—Joint Research Centre (JRC)]

In an address here marking the 50th anniversary of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre at Ispra, Italy, Leshner credited the Europeans with successful work to integrate the scientific enterprise across much of the continent and to educate and engage the public in science and technology issues.

But, he said, the world’s leading research powers must develop genuine partnerships with emerging nations that have embraced science and technology to solve critical problems and drive economic growth. Together, he added, Europe and the United States can work with other nations to build global science capacity while addressing such problems as climate change and infectious disease and seeking more consistent scientific standards on education, research, and ethics.

“High-quality science now is going on all over the world,” said Leshner, who serves also as executive publisher of the journal Science. “No longer is good science only the purview of the United States or Europe.... More and more countries have realized that for their nations to prosper, they have to have strong capacities and polices to promote the best science.”

That underscores the “tremendous need and opportunity for us—the European Commission and the United States—to collaborate on integrating the global scientific community so that we can all take advantage of the benefits,” he added.

Leshner’s talk spanned a range of critical science policy issues, but focused especially on changes in the U.S. and global climate for science and technology, the need to engage a sometimes skeptical public on science-related issues, and the uses of science diplomacy to advance research and improve global relations. At the end of his 65-minute presentation, an audience of more than 350 people responded with sustained applause.

The 28 October Brussels event was the culmination of months of dialogue between AAAS and European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) focused on building a robust cooperative relationship for the 21st century.

Janez Potočnik : ‘We are Speaking from the Same Script’

Janez Potočnik
[© European Communities, 2009—Joint Research Centre (JRC)]

A day earlier, AAAS and the JRC convened a group of 22 European and U.S. science and technology leaders in Ispra for a dialogue on how science contributes to policy-making in their nations—and how to make that influence more effective. In Brussels before the lecture, Leshner and Tom Wang, AAAS director of international cooperation, held informal meetings with European Commission science leaders.

Leshner’s address was the first in an annual series begun this year by the Joint Research Centre. It was followed by a brief ceremony at which Leshner and JRC Director General Roland Schenkel signed an agreement to pursue cooperative efforts on a range of initiatives, with an initial focus on combating illicit traffic in nuclear material and other nuclear security issues.

In introducing Leshner, Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science & Research, said that a relationship based on “healthy competition” and strategic cooperation could help Europe and the United States to take leadership on global science and technology issues.

“Partnership is crucial if we are to succeed in tackling the undeniable, shared problems of climate change and energy, or food and security,” Potočnik said. “We can—and we must—build a strong and longstanding relationship as international partners.”

He noted AAAS’s role as the world’s largest multi-disciplinary science society, and its leadership in public engagement. “Enhancing science communication and education, defending the integrity of science, supporting scientific and technological enterprise, promoting the responsible use of science in public policy, and fostering scientific education for everyone—we are clearly speaking from the same script,” Potočnik said. “And this is exactly why we have been able to work together for awhile now and why we want to do more of it in the future.”

In Europe and Beyond, a New Age of Science and Technology

Janez Potočnik, Alan I. Leshner and Roland Schenkel
[© European Communities, 2009—Joint Research Centre (JRC)]

Leshner described the first decade of the 21st century as a time of transformation in how governments and the public regard science and technology. Governments worldwide—from China, India, and South Korea to Kuwait, Vietnam, and Rwanda—are recognizing that investment in science is crucial to prosperity and solving problems.

The 27-member European Union is moving across several fronts to strengthen and expand its commitment to science and technology.

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, announced in September that he would appoint the EC's first-ever chief scientific adviser. Earlier this fall, the European Commission asked public authorities, business, and researchers to invest an additional $50 billion in low-carbon energy technologies over the next 10 years. And last month, a high-level science and technology panel issued ambitious recommendations for promoting Europe’s scientific excellence and sharpening its competitive edge.

In the United States, Leshner said, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 fundamentally changed society and science. For eight years, gravity shifted strongly toward security, both in federal research funding and in areas such as visa policy. Today, he suggested, the nation is moving toward a new equilibrium.

President Barack Obama, elected a year ago, has expressed strong commitment to science as a means for solving critical problems—and commitment, as well, to the integrity of science. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who serves as speaker of he U.S. House of Representatives, also has demonstrated consistent support for science.

Non-defense research budgets have been dramatically expanded and new initiatives in science education are underway. The strict limits on U.S. visas are starting to ease; engineering and life sciences graduate programs in U.S. universities are reporting that applications from Chinese and Indian students are on the rise.

“Rather than having a defensive posture,” he said, the U.S. scientific community is “feeling as if there is tremendous support, which is likely to continue. We will become better collaborators in science.”

But the new commitment to science also will place “tremendous pressure on us to deliver,” Leshner said. “American scientific and technological communities will be held accountable. We won’t be accountable necessarily for how we contribute to the economy, but we will be asked what we did with the money and we’d better be able to say, ‘We didn’t do more of the same... We were able to do new and different things.’”

An Expanding List of Cooperative Efforts

International collaborations already allow nations to pool resources and expertise on research related to astronomy and space exploration, climate change assessment, physics and the human genome. Leshner urged the United States and Europe to expand that list dramatically, to include such fields as energy; science and engineering education; terrorism and security; technology and manufacturing jobs; and response to natural disasters.

Both Europe and the United States need to explore ways to make the research enterprise more efficient, he said. For example, he cited research showing that U.S. scientists spend 42% of their time on administrative tasks.

“I know this isn’t true in Europe,” he said, drawing broad laughter from the audience. “If we could come up with some common solutions, we might get more science done.”

To create “a global approach to global issues,” he said, they should work with other nations to develop consistent standards in research, education and ethics, and on specific areas such as the use of animals and human subjects in research.

“There has to be a way, if we want to integrate a global science community, to get more consistency in those policies across countries,” Leshner said. Without that, “it will become more difficult, rather than easier, to work together.”

Science and Society: A Constructive Dialogue

Leshner cited public engagement as a particular challenge for the United States. And while Europe has more effectively engaged the public on a range of crucial issues, there is a disconnect between science and some segments of the public there, too, on issues such as genetically modified foods and homeopathic medicine.

Some of the alienation results from a lack of public understanding, he said, and trust is diminished by high-profile cases of scientific misconduct and conflicts of interest. But much current—and future—tension arises from deep-seated conflicts between new scientific discovery and values that are often rooted in religion, Leshner said.

As an example, he cited embryonic stem cell research, a field in which many advocates urge the use of days-old embryos left over after in vitro fertilization techniques. Advocates see such research as holding great promise for curing disease and healing disabling injuries, but in the United States and some European nations, controversy has slowed advances.

“The problem now is not that people don’t understand it (the research),” Leshner said. “They understand. When surveyed, they believe that embryonic stem cell research will lead to improved treatment and improved diagnosis, maybe even cures for diseases like Parkinson’s or diabetes. But the issue has to do with what they believe about when life begins—and that’s a non-scientific question, something science cannot answer.”

In years ahead, Leshner said, public misgivings may arise around neuroscience and synthetic biology.

When imaging technologies and related research allow us to “look into the brains of living, breathing, awake individuals and watch their minds in action,” it will among some people “threaten their sense of self, their understanding of where their soul is,” Leshner said. “And what does it mean about free will?”

Public engagement therefore will be increasingly urgent in the years ahead—and to be successful, Leshner said, science must reflect on its past relations with the public and seek to listen—and understand—more carefully.

“Frankly, in the United States, it has been a major uphill battle to get the science community engaged with the public” in a “dialogue, as opposed to a monologue,” he said. “American scientists are way behind. They think they just need to educate the rest of the public and things will be okay if people just understand. And they’re wrong. It won’t be okay.”

The danger is that such alienation will hinder progress toward valuable discoveries, science needs to address that risk in a practical, effective way, Leshner said.

The conflict—and the need for a dialogue between science and the public—plays out in Europe, the United States, and many other countries and cultures. “The science-society relationship needs constant attention to keep it balanced,” Leshner explained. “The United States and Europe can work together to address tension when it emerges.”

In Leshner’s view, science diplomacy can be an overarching concept that allows scientists and engineers—and governments and the public—to address specific problems like energy and food production, while they confer on a range of inter-related issues, from science education to ethical standards and public engagement.

Both Europe and the United States have a history of using science to bridge gaps between nations and cultures, he said, and the approach has been employed frequently since World War II and the Cold War. But in the new era, science must recognize that there are new possibilities, and new obligations.

“We are the leaders in a global scientific enterprise,” Leshner said in concluding his address. “I believe it is both an obligation and an opportunity that comes with being the best and the loftiest. We have an obligation to help solve global problems together, help build capacity for emerging scientific communities, foster the integrity of the global scientific community, attend to the science-society relationship together, and engage in science diplomacy as a collegial partnership...

“There’s a great opportunity in many parts of the world. We need the will to do it, and we need the will to do it in a way that will persist over time.”