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An Opportunity to Navigate the Future of Science

by David P. Hajjar, Ph.D. and Steven G. Greenbaum, Ph.D.

At the global level, science diplomacy is defined as cooperation among countries in order to solve complex problems through scientific research and education (1). For example, science diplomacy plays an important role in resolving global issues related to the ecosystem (such as clean water, food safety, energy conservation, and preservation of the environment). It also addresses problems related to the healthcare industry. For example, scientists have served at the international level to forge the Middle Eastern Cancer Consortium a decade ago to facilitate better healthcare and improve cancer research in the region.  Whether one considers science for diplomacy or diplomacy for science, international science collaborations benefit from allowing science diplomats (broadly defined as science envoys, science attaches, embassy fellows) to help establish positive international relationships between the U.S., Europe, Latin America, Africa or Asia, particularly when proprietary disputes arise (2, 3). These various types of science diplomats already exist; some, like embassy fellows and science envoys, have one-year appointments so their role may be limited, while attaches usually have two or three year appointments that may allow them to be more successful in long, protracted negotiations. In any event, we believe that scientists can play more of a role in advancing international scientific cooperation. A key point addressed here is how to balance security concerns against the need for free exchange of information needed for innovation and growth.

Both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are already engaged in supporting American science and strengthening collaborations abroad. Such efforts take advantage of international expertise, facilities, and equipment. Here, we provide a rationale for the use of diplomacy to address scientific challenges. This approach allows some scientists working as diplomats to help manage complex and potentially conflicting situations that arise between scientific communities and their governments. Such issues include managing disputes such as licensing agreements for intellectual property (IP) and providing protection of IP.

International collaborations can not only support but also accelerate the advancement of science. However, collaborations may carry risk if IP is misappropriated for other purposes. International collaborations should have a basis in strategy and specific goals (for example, drug discovery) in order to justify the use of government and/or corporate funds.

About a decade ago, a group of academics from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom assembled the “Manchester Manifesto,” subtitled “Who Owns Science” (6). This document addressed the lack of alignment between commercial interests, intellectual rights, and credit to the researcher. In our (and commonly held) view, the groups representing these disparate values could benefit from diplomatic mediation. More recently, it has become increasing apparent that managing China as a science and technology superpower represents another challenge for the U.S.  Resolution of issues such as ownership of IP, rights to reagents, or use of skilled laboratory personnel from international collaborations may require the efforts of science diplomats. There are few international offices or “guardians” to protect junior and senior scientists in corporate or academic sectors from misuse of reagents or piracy.

China’s failure to respect IP rights, and the resulting piracy, has drawn much attention. The media have also focused on the failure of watchdog government agencies to detect and manage these unwanted activities. Industrial espionage compromises U.S. interests. Moreover, Chinese and Russian hackers have cyberattacked U.S. technology companies, financial institutions, media groups, and defense contractors. In 2018, industrial spying was even reported in a major medical school in New York City where scientists were alleged to have illegally shared research findings with Chinese companies.

The U.S. has a long history of hiring research personnel from other countries to staff its laboratories and industrial R&D centers. These scientists and engineers have made critical contributions to our nation’s well-being and security. These young Chinese and South Asian graduates of U.S. programs a generation ago now staff our research enterprise. However, recent trends in U.S. graduate school applications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) reflect a downturn in foreign applicants, particularly from China. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the number of American-born students seeking STEM degrees is not sufficient to satisfy future demands of our high-tech workforce. While our own educational reforms must be augmented, we cannot ignore the need to continue to recruit overseas talent.

We believe that foreign scientists can continue to make critical discoveries in the U. S. provided that their talent is nurtured, developed, and harnessed for the common good. At the same time, American companies cannot hire foreign scientists if they take the ideas they generate in U.S. laboratories back to their home countries without proper credit or permission. If the advancement of science is to succeed, greater diplomatic cooperation is needed to solve and manage proprietary issues for the benefit of all (5, 6).

So, how does one strike the proper balance between security and growth?  Science is a universal social enterprise; international conferences lead to friendships and productive collaborations between nations. Given that the U.S. and Chinese governments recognize the need for international communication and collaboration then surely there should be a mechanism for adjudicating anticipated conflicts. One approach would be for government, industrial, and academic stakeholders to form an international panel of scientists and engineers to manage any conflicts of interest between the need to protect proprietary information crucial to a company’s competitive edge, and the need for students and young faculty members to publish their findings. Smaller scale efforts along these lines have recently given rise to unique global partnerships, such as fellowship support by major pharmaceutical companies, which aim to address these conflicts to the benefit of both parties. An added feature of such arrangements is that they often provide corporate financing for research (9). Can this corporate-academic partnership model be adapted to multinational joint R&D efforts while protecting IP? This question falls squarely within the purview of international science diplomacy, whereby science diplomats can establish rules of conduct governing joint global technology development with proper IP protection.

Despite the highly publicized and legitimate piracy allegations against China, at least some data indicates that the Chinese legal system is responding positively to worldwide pressure to honor foreign IP. A 2016 study by Love, Helmers, and Eberhardt, for example, found that between 2006 and 2011, foreign companies brought over 10 percent of patent infringement cases in China, and won over 70 percent of those cases (10). Today, “win rates” average around 80 percent, and “injunction rates,” around 98 percent (10). As Chinese scientists and engineers increasingly enter the top tier of the innovation space, their growing awareness of their own need for IP protection could be a powerful motivating force for the protection of all IP. As stated earlier, science diplomats could catalyze this progress even further by direct negotiations with those parties involved in the conflicts. An obvious flaw in this optimistic outlook is that scientists in the U.S. wield more influence with their government than scientists in China wield with theirs. And to the extent that the Chinese government could be encouraging IP theft, this must be addressed first by those international companies/firms who want to do business with the Chinese.  Chinese investments, as well as tech incubators and targeted acquisitions, can enable access to U.S. technologies for commercial development. Although this conveys a level of risk to the developers, it may provide valuable opportunities for U.S. companies as well. In many respects, the extensive engagement and collaboration in innovation between the U.S. and China, often characterized by open exchanges of ideas, talent, and technologies, can be mutually beneficial in enriching and accelerating innovation in both countries.

In summary, we believe that science diplomats could help address the increasingly complex issues that arise between accelerating scientific and engineering advances, and the need to protect national security and corporate IP. We also propose that this might be accomplished by asking the National Academies to recommend academic, corporate, and government scientific leaders to serve on an international scientific advisory board, and for the corresponding organizations in other countries to do the same. Access to the free flow of information promotes new knowledge and innovation. A return to a more restrictive intellectual environment is not only harmful to progress, but also nearly impossible to manage in the current internet age. A good place to start would be to engage the newly appointed head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (the Science Advisor to the President of the United States), and working groups within established organizations. These organizations include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) or the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, and corresponding international organizations. What incentive is there for a busy and successful scientist to serve in such capacity? It is the same altruism that motivates us to accept assignments as journal editors, manuscript reviewers, or funding agency panelists for the advancement of science toward the greater good.bluestar

4. D.P. Hajjar, J.E. Richardson, K.D. Coleman, Role of diplomacy in advancing global science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) policies in the 21st Century, Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations (16(2), 93-100 (2015).
5. S.G. Greenbaum, D.P. Hajjar, Can Science Diplomacy Advance STEM Education Particularly for Women in the Middle East?
9. E. Hayden, Nature 509, 146 (2014) doi:10.1038/509146a.



Author Dr. David P. Hajjar is Dean Emeritus and University Distinguished Professor, and Professor of Biochemistry and Pathology at Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell University. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, a Jefferson Science Fellow of the National Academies at the U.S. Department of State, and a recent Senior Fellow in Science Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

AuthorDr. Steven G. Greenbaum is Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He was a Jefferson Science Fellow of the National Academies at the U.S. Department of State.


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