Science to Bridge the Americas

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Science  26 Feb 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5969, pp. 1059
DOI: 10.1126/science.1183562

It is broadly recognized across the Western Hemisphere that science can provide answers to health and environmental problems and stimulate national development. But in a given region, scientists often face overwhelming barriers to conducting research, and there is far too little interaction among academia, industry, and government on an international level to effect change. Scientists in developing regions have repeatedly raised ways in which help from the United States could be transformational. It is now time to do more.

There are well-established U.S. academic and government programs that explore links between science and diplomacy and focus on forging robust scientific communities. For example, each year, the Jefferson Science Fellowship of the U.S. National Academies, in which I participated last year, selects up to 10 senior scientists across disciplines to work with the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).* As a Jefferson Fellow, I traveled to universities, research institutes, and government agencies, seeking to enhance connections with foreign scientists. From my discussions with scientists and administrators across 12 countries in Latin America, several ideas repeatedly emerged for meeting the challenges ahead in health and environmental arenas, among others.

With minimal additional resources, the United States could bolster such interactions. For example, the U.S. Fulbright program, which supports about 7000 new grants each year for students, researchers, educators, and other professionals across disciplines, could make training in the sciences a larger proportion of its mandate. This program could provide financial support to aid each foreign scientist's return to his or her home country. Mexico provides this type of reentry support through CONACYT, but trainees in the United States who come from less-developed countries are likely to require U.S. funds for this purpose.


A dedicated program that supports visits of foreign scientists to a U.S. lab for as little as 1 to 2 months could also have a huge impact on science in Latin America. Participants could learn new approaches to a research question and become part of a larger research network. To encourage scientists who are trained abroad to return to positions at home, prolonged collaborations are also needed. Undertaking joint research projects in Latin America is difficult—funding is limited (U.S. agencies often restrict foreign expenditures), and grant deadlines for partners can be incompatible. To support such projects, a fund could be created with contributions from the science agencies of the participating countries; for less-developed countries, funds could also come from USAID.

Finally, many faculty members in Latin America would like to earn a Ph.D. in the United States but cannot leave family and job for long periods. U.S. universities could develop short intensive courses, Internet distance learning, and creative research programs to support the pursuit of an advanced degree. And with help from U.S. embassy staff in making arrangements, U.S. scientists visiting the Caribbean or Latin America for research or vacation could volunteer to spend time at a university, presenting their research and meeting with faculty and students.

Most countries in the Western Hemisphere have democratic governments and are eager for enhanced scientific interaction with the United States. Moreover, the U.S. State Department recognizes that “science diplomacy” in general is a powerful adjunct to other forms of international action. Supporting such efforts achieves the diplomatic goals of fostering mutual understanding while building human networks that link the United States with other countries. The cost is trivial compared to that of other forms of “hard diplomacy.” The potential for scientific and societal payoffs is immense, as a better-linked scientific community will speed progress in responding to major problems that affect us all: health, energy, climate change, and preserving biodiversity. And even more importantly, programs that support international science broadly will position humanity to understand and meet the challenges yet to come.


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