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Science Diplomacy Leverages Alliances to Build Global Bridges

History of U.S. and Soviet Scientific Research Collaborations and Exchanges Offers Lessons for Today

Nobel Prize winner Kip Thorne
Kip Thorne accepts the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017 for his “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.” | Nobel Media AB

Nobel laureate and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne counts his decades-long collaboration with Russian experimental physicist Vladimir Braginsky as pivotal to scientific research that led to the first detection of two colliding black holes in the distant universe.

The 2015 detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) was not only the birth of a whole new way of studying the universe, a realization predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and a discovery that earned Thorne and two other physicists the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. It also validated the enduring benefits of science diplomacy across the globe.

“Braginsky was my principal mentor on research at the interface between theory and experiment. His mentoring made possible many of my contributions to LIGO, and our tight collaboration led to his own major LIGO contributions,” said Thorne. “He became the ‘conscience’ of LIGO in the 1990s and 2000s, identifying a series of sources of noise that we had not been aware of, and triggering the LIGO Scientific Collaboration to scope out those noise sources and devise ways to deal with them.”

Thorne and Braginsky, who died in 2016, traveled to each other’s laboratories, coauthored scientific papers, shared findings, traded questions and formed a lasting friendship that began with Thorne’s first visit to Braginsky’s lab in 1968 and extended into the 2000s.

As scientists forged such cooperative relationships despite tensions between their governments, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was pioneering efforts to spread the global reach of science and technology by engaging in scientific leadership initiatives through international exchanges and scientific partnerships.

In 2008, AAAS formally established the Center for Science Diplomacy to advance the value of what then AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner described as a program “guided by the overarching goal of using science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding and prosperity. AAAS believes this use of scientific collaboration and communication is essential both to the advancement of science and its use for the benefit of our global society.” Leshner is now serving as AAAS’s interim CEO.

At the center’s opening, Vaughan Turekian, then AAAS’s chief international officer, said the center would “contribute to the long and methodical building of relationships” and pursue advances to address global challenges such as climate change, sustainability, and health care innovation.

A year later, AAAS joined five representatives of other leading scientific organizations in a meeting with North Korea’s State Academy of Science. During the rare visit, U.S. scientists met with their counterparts, toured government research institutions and reached an agreement to pursue cooperative issues that paved the way for a reciprocal visit of North Korean scientists to U.S. laboratories.

AAAS has continued to develop such scientific agreements, including a 2013 agreement with China’s Association for Science Technology, a 2014 pact between AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sciences, a 2017 agreement with Mexico’s Presidential Science Advisory Council and a 2018 agreement with the Science Commission of Chile’s Senate.

It also has tapped into long-standing collaborations to offer training sessions and expand global scientific alliances. Last year, for instance, AAAS held a regional training workshop with The World Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Science of South Africa to introduce regional scientists to scientific collaborations that inform science and advance diplomacy.

The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy also provides training for scientists and graduate students in the U.S., and, since 2014, it has cohosted international sessions with The World Academy of Sciences at its headquarters in Italy.

Scientists Vladimir Braginsky and Kip Thorne
Vladimir Braginsky, left, meets with Kip Thorne at his Pasadena, California, home. | Courtesy Kip Thorne

Throughout the ebb and flow of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, then Russia, scientists, like Thorne, continue to build professional relationships and keep in touch with their foreign counterparts.

“The Cold War Iron Curtain was not a significant barrier to my collaborations with Braginsky and other Russian scientists,” said Thorne. “I hope the soaring paranoia in Washington about China does not create major barriers to the very fruitful collaborations that my colleagues today have with Chinese scientists.”

The parallel with China was not raised during a July 16 AAAS symposium hosted by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy that centered on the history of U.S.-Soviet scientific activities. In examining scientific interactions between the two powers, Gerson S. Sher, author of “From Pugwash to Putin: A Critical History of US-Soviet Scientific Cooperation” and former coordinator of the National Science Foundation’s U.S.-Soviet and East European program, used the U.S.-Soviet relationship as a case study of what drives, benefits and sometimes interrupts international scientific collaborations.

Today, six decades of formal bilateral exchanges between U.S. and Soviet scientific academies have “all but descended to zero,” after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its intervention in the Ukraine crisis in 2014, said Sher during the symposium held at AAAS’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Sher walked through earlier collaborations during post-World War II, post-Joseph Stalin and post-Soviet periods to demonstrate that despite any strained relations between governments, scientific cooperation endures in strengthening civil relationships, improving understanding of each society and advancing science.

Among early U.S. collaborations was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “people to people” exchange initiative. Backed by private sponsors, it amplified the scientific communities’ prevalence to nurture relationships with fellow researchers. This led to the emergence of multiple public and private scientific efforts designed to support international scientific alliances in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991.

The U.S. National Science Foundation, for instance, established the nonprofit U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) in 1995 to provide scientists grants, technical resources, and training support for global scientific and technical collaborations. Sher served as its founding president.

CRDF’s emergence came amid heightened U.S. concerns about unsecured weapons of mass destruction and set off calls for nonproliferation programs, said Sher. Particularly unsettling was the sidelining of Russian nuclear weapons experts under the weight of a stagnant Soviet economy and amid the chaotic fallout of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

In remarks at the AAAS symposium, Cathleen A. Campbell, who also served as a CRDF president beginning in 2006, underscored the importance of such nongovernmental organizations in fostering scientific collaborations through science and technology agreements between the United States and the former Soviet Union and its republics.

“That was a unique period in history that I don’t think we will ever see again anywhere,” said Campbell, a former visiting scholar at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and now a board member of the U.S.-Israel Bilateral Science Foundation. “It’s just an incredible interconnection of opportunities and challenges and issues we were facing that prompted this whole array of programs.”

Turekian, now executive director of policy and global affairs at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said the Cold War had a profound impact in shaping science diplomacy, then and today.

“The creation of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy was a response to the need to refocus how science and science cooperation could be better utilized as a bridge outside of a polar world and to deal with complex issues at regional and global scales,” said Turekian. “But it also looked to the U.S.-USSR science diplomacy experiences to understand how to make science diplomacy work.”


A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the August 30, 2019, issue of Science.

[Associated image: Nobel Media AB]



Anne Q. Hoy

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