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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: International Cooperation in Science Important for US S&T Enterprise, Lawmakers Told

March 25, 1998

At the third in a series of hearings conducted by the Science Committee's National Science Policy Study, lawmakers examined international science collaborations. Questions considered at the hearing included: why the United States should participate in international scientific collaborations, when such collaborations are likely to be effective, and how to prevent them from being manipulated to meet goals other than scientific goals.

All witnesses agreed that international scientific cooperation had numerous benefits to the US science and engineering enterprise. Catherine Wagner of the Critical Technologies Institute at RAND Corp. released findings that showed the U.S. was leveraging dollars in most international cooperation. The RAND study noted that most international cooperation in S&T was in the basic sciences and that international cooperation in science "enhances the U.S. science base by increasing scientific knowledge and access to resources and data."

One of the key conclusions of panel members (see below) was that international cooperation in smaller science projects supported agencies like NSF tended to work very well, but the record of cooperation on large, mega-science projects was not very good. The demise of the Superconducting SuperCollider was held up as an example of a mega-science project that failed in part due to the lack of international cooperation.

Committee Vice Chairman Vern Ehlers noted that most mega science projects would not happen in the future without international cooperation and that it was important that a more consistent strategy be developed to enable greater international cooperation. Admiral James Watkins - former DoE Secretary - noted that it is critical to have early involvement of all domestic stakeholders in science mega projects - Congress, the administration, and the science community - during any future international negotiations on big science projects.

According to most panel witnesses, the lack of S&T capability at the State Department is a major obstacle to improving international S&T agreements on mega-science projects. Dr. Tom Ratchford - OSTP staffer during the Bush Administration - said that the science capability at the Department of State is "broken" and that as a result, S&T agencies like NSF have provided the leadership for international S&T over the years. This has worked well for smaller international programs and agreements, Ratchford said, but that larger projects tend to suffer without backing from foreign policy agencies like State. He suggested that agencies like NSF could play a role in improving the S&T capability at State through exchanges of scientists and engineers, possibly for stations overseas. Dr. Bruce Alberts - President of the National Academy of Sciences - also noted that the State Department has recently asked NAS to undertake a study on the contributions that S&T can make to foreign policy.