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Science  27 Mar 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5922, pp. 1685-1686
DOI: 10.1126/science.323.5922.1685

Science Diplomacy

Syrian, U.S. Science and Health Leaders to Explore Cooperation

Diplomacy in Damascus.

Syrian and U.S. officials recommended science and education cooperaton across a range of fields.

Photo courtesy of Damascus University

High-level science, medical and higher education officials from Syria and the United States agreed to explore future cooperation in health, agriculture, scholar exchanges, and other areas during four days of talks in Damascus.

The delegation met for more than an hour with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with discussion focused on the central role of science and education in meeting a nation's economic and social needs. The Americans also joined with some of Syria's most influential leaders in research, education, and government for wide-ranging talks with the hope that science diplomacy could help open a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

The 10-member U.S. delegation was assembled by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC) and included Nobel laureate David Baltimore, the immediate past chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors, and two senior AAAS executives. The visit came at a time of new dialogue between the two nations, and both sides characterized the meetings as cordial and constructive.

“Successful cooperation between the United States and Syria in science, education, and health care will serve to help break through political barriers and negative perceptions and serve as a cushion in times of political disagreement,” said U.S. delegation leader Pamela Scholl, president of the Dr. Scholl Foundation and a member of the Center's Board of Trustees.

“I was a little apprehensive before the U.S.-Syria dialogue got underway,” said delegation sponsor Wafic Said, a Syrian-born businessman and philanthropist. “We had essentially brokered a blind date between two highly distinguished delegations and we had no idea whether they would take to each other. As it turned out, both sides worked together with mutual respect and genuine enthusiasm and we were able to identify concrete opportunities for future collaboration of benefit to both countries.”

Though planning for the meetings had been underway for months, the delegation's visit coincided with steps by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to explore a possible thaw with Syria, which has been at odds with the United States over a range of regional issues. And it reflects the growing ambition of independent diplomacy efforts by researchers and research organizations in the United States who are making science-based overtures to Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and other nations where governmental relations are strained or nonexistent.

The delegation arrived in Damascus on 9 March, and after a reception that night, the Americans and their Syrian counterparts spent three full days in talks and in visits to research and education centers and cultural and historic sites. The Syrian delegation, headed by Dr. Fawaz Akhras, medical director of Cardiac and Medical Healthcare Services at Cromwell Hospital in London, made presentations on Syria's health care and higher education systems and its plans for science- and technology-driven innovation.

Bilateral working groups made a series of recommendations which were adopted by the delegations. Among them: Focus on collaboration in water, energy, and agriculture, where there is joint capacity and mutual interest; help Syrian hospitals win accreditation; consider establishment of a Syrian-American institute for advanced medical practices to help develop programs for medical technicians and nurses; increase exchanges involving science and engineering students and faculty; and look into how the U.S. visa system limits such exchanges.

Delegation member Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer, said that in the meeting with Assad, the Syrian president spoke in detail of two top priorities: water use and conservation in agriculture and building an integrated system of innovation. Turekian, who also directs the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, described the meeting as “very productive.”

“Throughout the visit, we were welcomed with enthusiasm and warmth,” he said. “Though challenges remain, both sides acknowledged that the tensions have gone on for far too long. The visit was an important demonstration of the potential for better relations.”

The visit was hosted by Damascus University, and university President Wael Mualla sat on the Syrian delegation. The British Syrian Society, with Akhras serving as co-chair, facilitated the meeting. Among others on the U. S. delegation were Theodore Kattouf, former U. S. ambassador to Syria and the United Arab Emirates; and Norman P. Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and senior adviser to the Center for Science Diplomacy.

The U.S. delegation's visit was conceived last fall during discussions between Said, who sits on the British Syrian Society's board of directors; CSPC President David M. Abshire, former U.S. ambassador to NATO; and Dr. Hrant Semerjian, a prominent Washington, D.C., physician. The Richard Lounsbery Foundation and the Center for Science Diplomacy also helped organize the meetings.

AAAS Annual Meeting

S&T Leaders Urge New Era of Climate, Energy Policy

Photo courtesy of

CHICAGO—One hundred and fifty years after Charles Darwin published his elegant demonstration of how natural forces shape a diverse and ever-changing world, scientists at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago warned that those forces are being overwhelmed by human impact.

In his plenary address to open the 2009 meeting, outgoing AAAS President James J. McCarthy said the natural world explored by Darwin is disappearing, overtaken by a “distinctly new era” in which human activity has left an indelible mark on climate and habitat.

From McCarthy to planetary scientist Susan W. Kieffer to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, the meeting's key speakers joined in a sobering perspective on the Earth's transformation, conceding that certain trends in climate change may now be irreversible. But they urged the thousands of researchers, policy-makers, educators, and students in attendance to join the search for strategies that will allow humans to halt and perhaps reverse their damaging impact. “The choices to be made are not simple ones,” said McCarthy, “but the choices we make today will have profound effect decades out.”

While many attendees welcomed the promise of a new U.S. president who supports science and is committed to protecting the climate, McCarthy and others emphasized that significant political challenges lie ahead.

The team of science advisers assembled by President Barack Obama is without equal, said McCarthy, “but these people will need all of our support as this new administration moves aggressively to solve the economic and energy security problems…and at the same time assumes a new role as an international leader in global efforts to curb anthropogenic climate change.”

Addressing an audience of 3000, Gore asked scientists to use their knowledge and their respected status in the community to press for broad, swift changes in energy and environmental policies. “We have a full-blown political struggle to communicate the truth,” said the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner. “And those of you who have not been engaged in trying to communicate effectively in your communities… this is no time to sit back.”

Underscoring the need for action, Stanford University biologist Christopher Field offered an ominous update on rising greenhouse gas levels in a symposium that was widely covered by U.S. and international news media.

A massive release of carbon from shrinking forests and melting permafrost may soon “act like a foot on the accelerator pedal for atmospheric CO2,” warned Field, who is working on the next consensus report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We are basically looking now at a future climate that is beyond anything that we've considered seriously in climate policy.”

Kieffer, a MacArthur Fellow at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, called for the creation of a “CDC for Planet Earth”—an organization that could respond to ocean acidification, spreading deserts, and degraded soils in the same way that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now responds to health crises.

Even as the twin troubles of climate change and a faltering worldwide economy loomed over many of the Chicago symposia, attendees found time to celebrate Darwin's legacy in topics as diverse as the chemistry of kissing and the end of the universe. Local students visited the Field Museum of Natural History during AAAS's Public Science Day to chat with scientists about the role of evolution in modern research.

And in a nod to the great naturalist's interest in human evolution, a team led by Max Planck geneticist Svante Pääbo announced a rough draft of the Neandertal genome at the start of the meeting. The Neandertal project and others like it are bringing about a “second golden age in evolutionary science,” said molecular biologist Sean B. Carroll, who suggested in his plenary talk that today's researchers “share the same sense of surprise and discovery” as Darwin and his contemporaries.

—Becky Ham

Energy and Climate

The Problem with Coal, the Promise of Efficiency

Solar and wind power get a lot of favorable buzz, and nuclear power is always provocative. But at a Washington, D.C., forum sponsored by Hitachi Ltd. and co-organized by the Brookings Institution and AAAS, researchers and business leaders suggested that to protect the earth's climate, it is immediately important to control the harmful impact of coal and use its power more efficiently.

That prescription could have enormous impact as energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions accelerate in the early 21st century, the experts said. The United States and China remain heavily dependent on coal; clean-coal technologies are still experimental and likely to be expensive. And renewable power sources, while promising, aren't yet ready to fill the gap, said Tadahiko Ishigaki, chairman of Hitachi America.

But the forum generated a surprising, albeit cautious, optimism: Efficiency could be the most readily available, least expensive, and most effective approach to reducing emissions.

“Energy efficiency is the near-term essential thing to do because we can wake up and start doing it tomorrow morning,” said William Moomaw, director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University.

The 5 March forum convened about 400 people to hear discussion under the theme “Meeting Energy Needs, Reducing Environmental Impact.” Speakers came from Japan, Brazil, and the United States; Hitachi, Brookings, and AAAS each organized a panel.

Though they covered a broad range of issues, coal was a recurring theme—a power source so important, and so damaging, that speakers insisted it should be an urgent focus of climate policy, science diplomacy, and technological innovation.

In a keynote speech, U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), warned that despite two decades of global discussion, conditions are deteriorating. Carbon dioxide emissions from human sources have grown four times faster in the last eight years than in the 1990s, he said. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up 33% faster, surpassing the worst-case emission scenarios envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In that context, coal is “the most intractable problem,” said Science reporter Eli Kintisch, who moderated one panel. While dozens of coal-fired power plants have recently been cancelled in the United States, speakers noted such plants still account for 50% of the nation's power, and 70% in China. In India, coal-related industries employ 26 million people.

Coal will remain a key power source, several speakers said. And until other sources come online, conservation and efficiency are the best means for reducing demand for electricity—and emissions from coal-fired plants. Kerry cited a recent report by McKinsey & Company which found that energy efficiency alone could yield almost 40% of needed emission reductions.

“Energy efficiency is the world's greatest resource,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. The United States has “turned to it time and again over the past 30 years to power our economy.”

Without past efficiency improvements, Callahan explained, the nation would need to produce 50% more energy today than it does. And the 2007 federal law phasing out incandescent bulbs by 2014 will save as much energy as all other federal appliance standards adopted since 1980.

Panelist Takashi Hatchoji, the chief environmental strategy officer at Hitachi, said that by 2025, the company plans to cut emissions associated with its products by 100 million tons compared to 2005. The key, he said, will be using technological innovation to achieve efficiency in a range of applications, from home appliances to hybrid trains to processes for making steel and cooling massive data centers.

Other speakers described projects that seem sprung from science fiction, but which are all under study: Nuclear power fueled by thorium, which is more efficient and poses fewer risks than uranium. Industrial processes that extract CO2 from coal-fired power plants and turn it into cement-like calcium carbonate. Harvesting solar and geothermal power in the American Southwest to power the whole nation.

Physicist Martin Hoffert, a professor emeritus at New York University, is exploring how satellites could beam solar energy down to earth. He and others called for a new era of federal research and development investment in high-risk ventures that could permanently shift the energy-climate paradigm.

As a nation, “our unique talent … has been in breaking the rules and doing things that have never been done before,” Hoffert said. “I think this is our destiny.”

It may be the world's destiny, as well.

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