Oceans, Weather, Health—U.S. Researchers Explore Potential Collaboration with Cuban Colleagues

They are next-door neighbors, sharing all the amenities and challenges of the neighborhood—oceans teeming with life, the risk of tropical diseases, a changing climate that may be giving rise to bigger and more frequent hurricanes. And yet, because the neighbors are barely on speaking terms, they cannot share the opportunities and the responsibilities that come with solving the challenges.

Today, however, scientists in both Cuba and the United States are exploring whether a thaw in relations between the two nations could allow for a range of new or expanded joint research projects that could bring benefits to both nations and others in the Caribbean Basin. Recent visits and consultations facilitated by AAAS and the Academia de Ciencias de Cuba (Academy of Sciences of Cuba) underscored that both sides see potential for substantive science collaboration.

“The recent visits showed that the Cuban mindset is really ready to reach out,” said Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and a former president of AAAS, who returned in March from his third visit to the nation. “The scientists would have no trouble working together… The Cubans are understandably proud of their science, and they see us very positively. I would anticipate if we could normalize relations and do science as a starting point, then really good things could happen.”

 

Peter Agre and Fidel Castro [Photo courtesy of Peter Agre]

Peter Agre and Fidel Castro
[Photo courtesy of Peter Agre]

“The possibility of open scientific exchange between researchers in Cuba and the U.S. can only bring increased benefits for both scientific communities, and of course, for the people in their respective countries,” said Sergio Jorge Pastrana, foreign secretary of the Academia de Ciencias de Cuba.

 

“The kind of scientific development that took place in Cuba for the last half-century has produced original results that have been internationally recognized as being in the frontiers of knowledge in several fields. Science, along with technology and innovation, has produced outcomes that are important for societies not only in Cuba and the United States, but in neighboring countries of the Caribbean, and for sustainable development everywhere.”

Vaughan C. Turekian, director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, said that researchers from both nations have focused on science, not on the politics that have divided the two nations for a half-century.

“Especially on the environmental side, there is not an issue that we discussed that doesn’t have direct implications and impact both on Cuba and the United States,” said Turekian, who also serves as AAAS’s chief international officer. “Given the proximity, when you’re talking about atmospheric or marine science, if it travels to Cuba, it travels to the Southeast coast of United States, too. If it spawns off the coast of Cuba, it is caught or affected by currents that go into the United States.”

The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy organized an initial three-day visit to Cuba in November 2009, with Agre, then the AAAS president, and seven other U.S. science leaders. AAAS helped to facilitate a second visit last December, with 18 independent scientists traveling to the island for informal talks centered on marine science, atmospheric science, environmental change, conserving biodiversity at large scales, sustainable fisheries, and capacity-building. Agre, who heads the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, returned to Cuba in March to speak at Biotechnology Havana 2012, an international congress that focused on medical applications of biotech.

Since the early 1960s, just after the Cuban revolution, the two neighbors have been locked in a Caribbean cold war; though they are just 90 miles apart, the relationship has been characterized by economic and cultural barriers, sometimes sharp political conflict, and broad dimensions of mistrust. Advocates see science diplomacy as a way to do important research with value for all sides, and to build constructive engagement in a non-political environment.

History dating back well over 100 years suggests that Cuba and the United States are “natural scientific partners,” Pastrana said in an April email interview.

“As both science communities were establishing their own scientific institutions during the 19th century, many scientists and scholars from both countries started links of exchange, discussion and cooperation,” he said. “The relations of Cuban scientific research centers, as well as of many scientists and scholars, with the Smithsonian Institution, universities like Harvard, Columbia or Yale, go way back and, in many ways, have been important for both sides for a very long time.

 

Sergio Jorge Pastrana and Peter Agre [Photo courtesy of Sergio Jorge Pastrana]

Sergio Jorge Pastrana and Peter Agre
[Photo courtesy of Sergio Jorge Pastrana]

“Some of those links have never disappeared, and have continued over particularly difficult moments, overcoming political hurdles, to produce important publications, collections, and scientific results that are of benefit to the peoples in both countries.”

 

The recent engagements have allowed AAAS and other scientists to further develop their ties with Pastrana and Fidel Ángel Castro Díaz-Balart—Fidel Castro’s oldest son—a nuclear physicist and leader in his nation’s science policy community.

The December trip also included a special side event: Agre and Alan Robock, a Rutgers atmospheric scientist, were invited to a three-hour meeting with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Castro’s wife, and his sons Fidel and Antonio, an orthopedic surgeon.

“The meeting with Fidel was really interesting,” Agre said. “It was about the past. He spoke about his family, growing up… He described the Revolution, the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis. It was a much different perspective than I expected.

“I mostly listened. If I meet him again—and I don’t know if I will—he asked me to bring him my research papers. But the fact that he and I sat in the same room—he didn’t see me as an enemy. I’m a scientist, born the same year as his son.”

But the central focus of the Cuban meetings was science, and informal scientist-to-scientist consultations and discussions. They focused on common interests and on the prospects—and challenges—of working together.

“There’s a definite pride in the work they do there, and the research they do,” said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations. “When we talk about collaboration, they really want honest collaboration and partnership, as opposed to funding or resources. They definitely are interested in pursuing areas of mutual interest.”

Malaria and the Caribbean

Both Turekian and Agre cited malaria as one area where the U.S. scientists might learn much from Cuba. And that might tie in to an interest shared by both countries in working to support health and human development in the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti.

“Malaria is endemic in Haiti,” Agre said. “It was endemic in Cuba, but one of the objectives of the revolution was to eliminate malaria—and they achieved that. How did they do it? That’s something I would like to pursue…. In Cuba, vaccinations and prevention are a high priority.”

Unchecked malaria or other diseases in Haiti can be a destabilizing factor even for neighboring nations, Turekian said. “It leads to a lot of people moving back and forth, and it reduces Haiti’s internal strength and stability,” he explained. “So Cuba and the United States could have mutual interests in working on this.”

So too with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), added Agre. Because of hurricanes, earthquakes, crime and other human disasters, PTSD is widespread in Haiti. “The Cubans have an interest in that, and we have an interest in that,” he said. “We could work on it together.”

Atmospheric Science

Atmospheric research is another area where Cuba and the United States share tangible common interests. Hurricanes and other storms go over Cuba en route to the United States. Clues gained from atmospheric conditions over the Caribbean can give insights—and perhaps early warning—about tornados in Oklahoma and Arkansas, or storms in Chicago and New York.

It is an area of particular interest for Turekian, an atmospheric geochemist. “There is no doubt that real atmospheric science involving Cuba—measurements, understanding of atmospheric conditions—is important not only for better understanding of transport of African dust, but also for getting a handle on how atmospheric conditions and dynamics affect the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern United States,” he said.

“Given that tornadoes are driven by really complicated dynamics that involve large amounts of warm air coming up through the Gulf and interacting with cold fronts, any data we can gain can mean lives saved…. But you can’t hope to understand things like storms as they affect the Southeast Coast of the United States without having better joint cooperation between scientists in the U.S. and Cuba, and without research, instruments, and calibration to measure dynamics that affect us both.”

Still, both Turekian and Robock suggested that official mistrust and the trade embargo combine to make such collaboration on climate research difficult, if not impossible.

Robock, in an interview, outlined efforts by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder to install global positioning system devices in the central Cuban city of Camaguey. The GPS devices receive signals from satellites; microwave signals are affected by transmission through the atmosphere, and depending on the density of the atmosphere, that allows for insights on weather and climate change.

There are nearly 100 such devices in the Caribbean, Robock explained, but Cuba, though one of the largest land masses in the Caribbean, hosts none of them.

“Basic weather data are already shared by all the countries of the world,” he said. “But taking specific measurements there with the GPS would be useful to Cubans and to the larger community. It gives you better information about the state of the atmosphere—temperature, humidity, soil moisture. That’s what you need to start a weather forecast model.”

But the Cuban military is wary of the GPS devices, and the nation has not approved the installation. At the same time, the U.S. embargo of Cuba makes it impossible for Cuban scientists to come to the United States for even a week-long course in how to use a computer climate model.

“Scientists from both countries want to work together,” Robock said. “We’ll do the best we can… but there are significant limitations.”

“From the scientific standpoint,” Turekian added, “this is about the ability to go to a place to make measurements so that we can better understand hurricanes and other conditions that affect the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. To do that, we need relationships and protocols so that Americans and the Cubans together can benefit from measurements in Cuba.”

Marine Science

Coral reefs in much of the Caribbean have sustained significant damage from human activity—over-fishing, climate change, oil spills, and other pollution. But off of Cuba’s coasts, says marine scientist Nancy Knowlton, the reefs have been less exposed to development, and they’re in better health.

Knowlton is the Sant Chair for Marine Science at Smithsonian Institution and senior scientist emeritus at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. She’s worked in fields of marine biodiversity and ecology; coral reefs are her specialty. Save for a cruise that stopped in Guantanamo, she’d never been to Cuba, but on her visit in December, she was deeply impressed with opportunities for research in the Cuban reefs and by the marine science already underway there.

“There are amazing habitats, much less impacted by people than most places in Caribbean, in terms of over-fishing and that sort of thing,” she said. “And there’s a large community of marine biologists there, many with shared interest in biodiversity and conservation.”

For Knowlton, the Cuban reefs are like “a window in time,” allowing researchers a view of what healthy reefs looked like in an era past. “They give you a baseline as to what a healthy fish community should look like,” she explained. And that gives greater insight into other Caribbean reefs where damage is more pronounced.

“So there are a lot of things to learn from Cuban marine scientists,” she said. “And there are a lot of reasons for Cubans to come here, or for Cubans to come and work at the Smithsonian. There’s a huge potential for interchange because there are so many shared interests.”

Small Steps, Significant Potential

Those shared interests appear to extend across many fields. Carney, whose parents were born in Cuba, met in December with Cuban counterparts who study and help shape government science and technology policy.

“From my own perspective in talking to their scientists, I was struck by some of the similarities between our communities,” Carney said. The Cubans “face challenges in policy decisions regarding research priorities, and how to balance between basic research and applied research. They provide universal health care, and so life science research is a bit more targeted, a bit more applied. But looking forward, you want to balance the applied portion with the basic research.

“It’s interesting that we’re both faced with similar issues, even though our systems are different.”

Scientists from both countries are aware, of course, of the considerable obstacles that stand in the way of full collaboration. Visas and the U.S. embargo are obvious problems. But where scientists in a wealthy nation like the United States take digital and Internet resources for granted, bandwidth in Cuba can be so limited that it’s difficult or impossible to exchange data. Given those constraints, the immediate prospects for full, constructive engagement between science communities are slender at best.

And yet Robock, Carney, and others said the visits have made clear that working with Cuban scientists is easier than it might appear.

“Any academic can go to Cuba and spend money without restriction,” Robock explained. “You need a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to spend money, but as a researcher, you are subject to the existing general license. So many more Americans could go to Cuba and start doing science with them—but they don’t know that they can.”

One of the ideas to emerge from the discussions, Carney said, was a Web resource page that would provide such practical information to both scientific communities.

These may be small steps, but they have a significant value in helping to build the foundation for collaboration among researchers in Cuba and the United States. Though the formal relationship between the two nations has long been strained, the scientists are betting on better times ahead, even if they don’t know exactly when.

“While it’s been the same for 50 years, it will change—political relationships always do,” said Turekian. “Whenever that relationship changes, you want to be in place where you have the groundwork laid and relationships built so you can take advantage of areas where science cooperation can actually contribute to both countries.”

In the meantime, efforts will continue, building on the collegiality that visitors to the island have shared with their hosts.

“Everyone who was there was a pretty good science diplomat,” said Knowlton. “There was no uneasiness—there was a lot of curiosity on both sides to meet people and find out what people are doing…. Everyone was going out of their way to be gracious. That’s important—you have to be willing to listen as well as to talk. It was lovely. I’d really like to go back.”

Added Agre: “Non-governmental science and AAAS have a tremendously important role to play. More than ever, science is a way for us to break barriers between adversaries. It’s a constructive way for the world to move ahead.”

Pastrana, too, sounded an ambitious note for the future.

“Any hurdle that comes in the way of international exchange in science is limiting its capacity to be of help for increasing the resilience of this world’s environments,” he said. “Only the knowledge, technologies, and products that come from scientific developments could provide the tools for societies to be able to continue human development in harmony with the only planet that sustains them so far, which has been abused for the last half-century far beyond its capacity to cope with such abuse.

“Let us be in favor of scientists and their open communication everywhere. In this way, they would be able to contribute to the sustainability of human societies on planet Earth.”

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Learn more about the Academia de Ciencias de Cuba (Cuban Academy of Sciences).

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