19 September 2012

Africa: U.S. Science Diplomacy Bills Stuck in Congress

Two bills aiming to increase the coordination and support for US science diplomacy in developing countries are unlikely to be passed by the US House of Representatives this summer, according to insiders.

The bills aim to coordinate US research agencies' cooperation with developing countries and to boost the number of US scientists travelling to developing countries as diplomatic staff.

The 'International Science and Technology Cooperation Act of 2012' (H.R. 5916) was introduced by representatives Russ Carnahan (Democrat) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican) in June. [1]

It has support from both parties and is officially endorsed by the US Civilian Research Development Foundation (CRDF Global) - a non-profit organisation that promotes international scientific collaboration for peace - and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The bill proposes establishing a body responsible for coordinating inter-agency goals on domestic science and technology, couched within the framework of US foreign policy. The body would seek to advance US science and foreign policy priorities through new international research and training partnerships.

Anna Quider, one of Carnahan's staff, said the bill would charge the Office of Science and Technology Policy with creating the body and deciding which agencies to include.

The second bill, the 'Global Science Program for Security, Competitiveness, and Diplomacy Act' (H.R. 6303) introduced in August by Carnahan, proposes increased diplomacy through collaboration with scientists in low- or lower-middle-income countries, countries with a Muslim majority, and countries in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. [2]

Activities, including provision of grants and capacity building, would be managed and implemented by the Secretary of State and the National Science Foundation. They would include specific programmes in which US scientists hold diplomatic positions and serve as envoys and 'embassy science fellows' to eligible countries.

Cathleen Campbell, president and CEO of CRDF Global, said the bill could extend the current Science Envoys programme by authorising Congress to allocate appropriate funds.

Other benefits would include financial support for an online library providing free access to scientific journals and databases, and an easing of visa processing procedures for foreign scientists' attendance at US conferences.

But GovTrack, a website devoted to tracking Congress, gives the bills a less than three per cent probability of being enacted.

"Unfortunately, we don't think it's likely that this bill will be enacted this Congress," Quider said.

The reason for this is the current situation in Congress, where few bills are passed due to disagreements between parties. "Congress has been almost totally gridlocked for the past year and a half," said John Daly, a former official in USAID's Office of Science and Technology.

A "financial cliff" is looming at the start of 2013, "and there will be massive cuts of all government programmes", said Daly.

In addition, Carnahan lost his seat in Congress in the primary election in August. This means he cannot reintroduce the legislation next year, "nor have much influence in the last few months of the current session," said Daly.

Election years are difficult times for passing legislation, said Campbell, but she added it is important to introduce bills, even if they only have a slim chance of passing, to raise the visibility of science diplomacy and "keep the agenda going".

Both Campbell and Daly said the Obama administration has renewed efforts on the role of science diplomacy in development.

Link to draft International Science and Technology Cooperation Act

Link to draft Global Science Program for Security, Competitiveness, and Diplomacy Act


[1] The International Science and Technology Cooperation Act (H.R. 5916, June 2012)

[2] The Global Science Program for Security, Competitiveness, and Diplomacy Act (H.R. 6303, August 2012)

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