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Cuban Academy of Sciences Visits Washington, D.C.

Five members of ACC delegation at AAAS headquarters
The Cuban delegation who traveled to D.C., from left to right, Luis Velázquez Pérez, Olga Fernandez Rios, Roberto Rodríguez Labrada, Axel Hidalgo Mayo and Roberto León Castellón. Credit: AAAS

One year after signing a renewed Memorandum of Understanding with the Cuban Academy of Sciences in Havana, AAAS hosted a Cuban delegation in Washington, D.C.

The delegation, led by Luis Velázquez Pérez, president of the Cuban Academy, and Dr. Olga Fernandez Rios, the Academy’s vice president and foreign secretary, included three young associates of the Academy. During their October visit, which was supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, the delegation participated in an event on U.S.-Cuba scientific cooperation at AAAS headquarters, visited the National Institutes of Health and met with key science policy leaders.

AAAS has led delegations to Cuba since 1997 in an effort to build bridges between U.S. and Cuban scientific communities. In 2014, AAAS and the Cuban Academy formalized their partnership with a MOU, updated in 2022.

AAAS and the Cuban Academy Aim for Sustained Cooperation

AAAS hosted representatives from the diplomatic, U.S. government and non-government communities for a panel discussion on U.S.-Cuba scientific cooperation and a reception.

Gilda Barabino, chair of the AAAS Board of Directors and president of Olin College of Engineering provided welcome remarks and reflected on the achievements of the professional meeting held in March 2023 in Havana. She introduced Sudip Parikh, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, who has co-led the last two AAAS delegations to Cuba together with Barabino.

“We need scientific experts and scientific policy and government leaders to work together to ensure the scientific enterprise of the future is built to effectively address the global challenges of today and those we have yet to imagine,” said Parikh. “And that includes maintaining and building peer-to-peer relationships between nations, such as the United States and Cuba.”

Three people sitting in chairs and one person at a podium on stage
Event at AAAS headquarters. From left to right, Kim Montgomery, Gilda Barabino, Luis Velázquez Pérez, and Sudip Parikh. Credit: AAAS.

Parikh spoke alongside Velázquez Pérez, who delved into the shared challenges that U.S. and Cuba face: “Our countries need to work together to address our shared societal challenges – from dengue to aging. The Cuban Academy of Sciences is excited to work with its partner AAAS to build bridges and foster collaboration across the Cuban and U.S. scientific communities.” 

Parikh and Velázquez Pérez emphasized their shared interest in building relations between the next generation of scientific leaders in both countries, as demonstrated by the inclusion of young associates of the Cuban Academy in their delegation to D.C.

Historic Visit to NIH

While in D.C., the Cuban delegation spoke about Cuba’s strengths in public health and explored common interests with the United States research ecosystem. The group received a warm welcome at NIH, which had hosted a Cuban delegation at its campus in Bethesda only three times before. 

Six people standing in the Vaccine Research Center at NIAID
Members of the delegation tour NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center. Credit: Marleen Van den Neste/NIH.

“This meeting confirmed what I had experienced during my visit to Cuba: namely, that Cuban health researchers have demonstrated considerable ingenuity and persistence in solving urgent public health needs,” said Jeanne Marrazzo, director the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who visited Cuba in 2022 to assess the process of development, testing and distribution of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

Marrazzo’s team was the first to meet with the delegation during its daylong visit at NIH, where they toured NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center and met with representatives from other institutes. The visit to NIH was facilitated by Joyelle Kalei Dominique, director of NIAID’s Office of Global Research, who was part of the AAAS-led delegation that traveled to Cuba in March to brainstorm areas of collaboration around public health and environmental issues.

“With the northward expansion of classically ‘tropical’ infectious diseases like dengue, malaria and chikungunya virus, the U.S. increasingly shares vulnerability to conditions that Cuban scientists have extensive experience with,” Marrazzo noted. “Bidirectional dialogue on these formidable issues could enrich our collective ability to fight these growing threats.” 

After meeting with NIAID, the Cuban scientists were hosted by the Fogarty International Center, which builds partnerships between health research institutions in the U.S. and abroad. The center facilitated meetings with representatives from other NIH institutes, including the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Aging and the National Institute of Mental Health. Velázquez Pérez, a neuroscientist who has published extensively on a genetic disorder known as hereditary ataxia, provided an overview on Cuba’s public health priorities, highlighting U.S.-Cuba research collaborations ranging from neurology to breast cancer.

Throughout his interactions with the Cuban delegation, Peter Kilmarx, acting director of the Fogarty Center, was able to learn more about the island’s robust science ecosystem, in particular their extensive networks for medical genetics and molecular biology.

Staff of NIH, ACC and AAAS at NIH's Bethesda Campus
Attendees to meetings between Cuban delegation and NIH representatives. Credit: Fogarty International Center/NIH.

“Cuban scientists have advanced research and development in infectious disease research and vaccinology, specifically on arboviruses, and on cancer treatment. Both countries could benefit from strengthening research partnerships in these and other areas,” said Kilmarx.

The visit to NIH was particularly relevant for two of the associates of the Cuban Academy given their background on health research: Roberto Rodríguez Labrada, deputy director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center (CNEURO), and Roberto León Castellón, also a neurologist who works as a researcher at Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital in Havana.

Climate and Health

A recurring topic throughout the Cuban delegation’s meetings at NIH and with other stakeholders in D.C. was the connection between health and climate change, particularly the impact of climate on health.

Seven people from NOAA, ACC and AAAS sitting around a table in an office
Meeting between Cuban Academy delegation and NOAA representatives. Credit: AAAS.

The delegation met with representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has signed three Memoranda of Understanding with the Cuban government on marine protected areas, maritime navigation safety, and weather and climate. A member of the Cuban delegation, Axel Hidalgo Mayo, is a senior researcher at the Institute of Meteorology in Holguín, Cuba.

“NOAA shares many of the same goals and priorities in the ocean and atmospheric realms,” said Elizabeth McLanahan, director of NOAA’s Office of International Affairs. “At NOAA, we believe sharing scientific information through bilateral collaborations, such as with Cuba, is of the utmost importance to better inform decision-making,” she emphasized. 

During this meeting, the Cuban Academy and NOAA talked about ocean management and how to better forecast and respond to severe weather events.

“Cuba has such a wide depth of knowledge and expertise in these areas,” McLanahan added, “which contributes to our shared commitment to sustainable marine management, scientific understanding, and safety of life, people, and property.” 

While in D.C., the delegation also visited the National Academy of Sciences, where they heard from NAS President Marcia McNutt and brainstormed with the directors of the Global Affairs and Health and Medicine divisions, as well as the Gulf Research Program on future ways of collaborating. Additionally, they had the opportunity to meet with early-career researchers with similar interests during a visit to The George Washington University.

“AAAS is looking forward to the continued collaboration with the Cuban Academy of Sciences in the coming years and using the common language of science to reach across borders and address the challenges of our time,” said Kim Montgomery, AAAS director of international affairs and science diplomacy.