Warming U.S.-Russia relations

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Science  20 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6190, pp. 1323
DOI: 10.1126/science.1257373

The ups and downs in the political relationship between the United States and Russia are clearly deteriorating scientific cooperation between the two nations. However, it is scientists who can and should lead a reversal in this situation.

Last month saw another setback. In response to U.S. economic sanctions over Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Russian government announced that it will stop cooperating with the United States on the International Space Station by 2020. Russia is also threatening to shut down 11 Global Positioning System stations that scientists use for geophysical research. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Energy is imposing a ban on Russian scientists working in its laboratories, raising concerns about collaborative work by U.S. and Russian scientists on Earth's climate.

“…mutual interest and capabilities…and not political factors, should dictate U.S.-Russia science cooperation.”


These events are reminiscent of the early 1980s, when science and technology engagement with the USSR was stopped in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and concern about Soviet treatment of Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov. Cooperation in science did not actively resume until later that decade, formalized by the 1989 signing of the U.S.-USSR agreement in basic sciences and, 4 years later, the U.S.-Russia Science and Technology Agreement. The latter (which I helped negotiate in 1993) is up for renewal in 2015. It should be allowed to lapse. Such agreements are useful when initiating cooperation between countries but are less valuable when there is a robust level of scientific cooperation driven by mutual interest and capabilities. The latter principles, and not political factors, should dictate U.S.-Russia science collaboration.

Scientists are most effective when they can work directly with their counterparts rather than through cooperation that is driven by high-level government initiatives such as the U.S.-Russia Science and Technology Agreement, the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, and the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. Indeed, during the Cold War period, U.S. and Soviet scientists maintained contact despite deep political differences. This early example of science diplomacy established lasting connections that helped avert nuclear war and laid a foundation for collaboration in the post-Soviet years.

Today, two conditions are necessary for a bottom-up investigator-initiated approach to collaboration across all categories of research. After decades of cooperation, U.S. and Russian scientists understand that there must be opportunities to work together. Russian scientists could do more, for example, to cultivate interaction with industries that would benefit from advancements arising from U.S.-Russian science cooperation. And because Russia is doing well economically, its scientists should support efforts for Russia to cover its own costs and provide financial support for U.S. partners, given the past decades of U.S. funding for Russian science. This could open the doors for collaborative projects. Another condition is that the quality of science in both nations must remain high. The United States is a leader in world science, but there is perennial concern about this status as other countries strengthen, and the U.S. fails to maintain, robust investments in basic and applied research. The situation in Russia is more problematic, with limited resources, a decline in the number of scientists, and low publication and citation rates as compared with its European counterparts. Scientists in both nations must exercise thought leadership in finding ways to incentivize the funding of high-quality research that produces mutually beneficial innovation and inspires the next generation of creative scientists.

Let us not forget Ukraine. U.S. and European cooperation with Ukraine must increase to help scientists there and address the country's challenges, support reforms in its higher education system, and build sustainable science institutions that function on the basis of openness, competition, and transparency.

At this critical juncture, the power of science is greater than ever. As both the United States and Russia face challenges to their overall standing in the global science community, each is poised to gain from continued cooperation. This potential will only fully be realized, however, if we allow scientists to take the lead.

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