Science in U.S.-Cuba relations

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Science  15 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6236, pp. 735
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa9542

Last month, after more than half a century of estrangement, the presidents of Cuba and the United States sat together for talks in Panama at the Summit of the Americas. This truly symbolic step in the already agreed-upon path toward restoring diplomatic ties has increased expectations in scientific circles. However, any impact will depend on what policy-makers and researchers make of this long-awaited opportunity.

Indeed, in spite of political differences, the two countries share a history of working well together in science. This relationship extends back to the mid–19th century, when the founders of national research institutions in both capitals (Felipe Poey in Havana and Joseph Henry in Washington) began exchanging letters, literature, and specimens. From that correspondence sprang many seminal scientific interactions, including the groundbreaking work of Cuban researcher Carlos Finlay and U.S. physician Jesse Lazear. Their partnership in 1900 confirmed Finlay's earlier theories about mosquitoes as the vector for yellow fever and turned the tide in controlling that disease. Likewise, just last year, in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, both nations were engaged as the two main providers for a World Health Organization effort to contain the exponential initial spread of the disease. Once again, their partnership demonstrated what Cuba and the United States can achieve by working side by side for the common good.

“We cannot squander scientific opportunities if a new era… is launched.”


And yet, most of the past scientific interactions between them have been feeble because of political limitations. After 1959, diplomatic links between Cuba and the United States were severed. In trying to bridge the divide, scientists in both countries restarted links with a 1980 agreement between the U.S. Smithsonian Institution and the Cuban Academy of Sciences to build on past shared resources, challenges, and abilities. Similar scientific agreements followed in the 1990s between the Cuban Academy and the New York Botanical Garden, Social Sciences Research Council, and other centers and universities. Last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Cuban Academy agreed to jointly focus on biomedical research in cancer, infectious diseases, drug resistance, and neurosciences, and earlier this year, the two countries discussed how to start working together to protect the marine environment between them—a mere 90 miles of ocean, where among other shared scientific challenges, both faced the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

We cannot squander scientific opportunities if a new era in U.S-Cuban relations is launched. But to cultivate true scientific relations requires more than just lifting existing embargo limitations. It would be easy for the United States to simply repeat the past and just consider Cuba as another close market of plantations, mining industries, and tourism, as was the case during the early 20th century. Cuban scientists, engineers, and educators, together with U.S. entrepreneurship and resources, must promote scientific collaboration between them and with other nations. For example, there is great global need to identify and handle emerging infectious disease threats. Both nations should be free to share data and knowledge to improve global monitoring and prevention. Climate scientists in Cuba and the United States should share their expertise and technologies in hurricane science and disaster management, as well as in the evaluation of the impact of climate change and the adaptations needed to mitigate its effects.

In both societies, there are uncertainties about this new path to the future, given the long history of confrontation and distrust. Many aspects of the relationship require lengthy negotiations to build consensus. However, science continues to be a means to show how to proceed to success. Cuban and U.S. scientists can achieve important results that have impact beyond their own countries' borders only if policy-makers can ensure conditions in each country that support robust collaboration. That includes removing visa obstacles and allowing unobstructed sharing of data, resources, and knowledge. Such actions would be a first strong step in creating a solid foundation for the diplomacy that has to be built anew between Cuba and the United States.


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