In This Issue
Engineering in China
June 1, 1998 Volume 28 Issue 2
The Bridge, Volume 28, Number 2 - Summer 1998

Science, Technology, and U.S. Foreign Relations

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: J. Thomas Ratchford

The role of science and engineering in U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy needs substantial strengthening, if the nation is to meet the economic, environmental, and security challenges of the next century.

There have been a number of studies of the role of science and technology (S&T) in international affairs. Several took place in the 1970's (Brooks and Skolnikoff, 1978; Center for Public Issues, Denver Research Institute, 1977; Congressional Research Service, 1976). The emphasis in the congressional study, the most thorough of these, and the focus of legislation that has since emerged from the Congress, was the Department of State. Yet, historically, the department has had a relatively small budget to devote to S&T. The Foreign Service personnel system does not reward specialists, including those in science and engineering. In spite of successive attempts to upgrade science and technology as important elements of the policy-making apparatus of the State Department, S&T has receded slowly over the years as a factor in the foreign-policy equation. More recently, resources devoted to S&T have been diverted for other purposes, especially the environment.

P.L. 95-426, authorizing appropriations for the Department of State for fiscal year 1979, was the most significant effort to incorporate S&T explicitly into the core foreign-policy activities of the department. It was very carefully crafted legislation, with facets addressing recruiting, staffing, and training of Foreign Service personnel. Of special significance was Title V of the law, which aimed to incorporate the complexities of the underlying S&T into a much more rational and orderly foreign policy development process. Conversely, Title V called for foreign-policy considerations to enter the S&T management practices at the federal agencies.

To assure that the new directives were not ignored, the president was required to submit to Congress an annual report detailing how the administration was progressing in carrying out the intent of Title V. Unfortunately, these reports 1 did not fulfill the promise of the authorizing legislation and are no longer issued.

Science and Technology in U.S. International Affairs, a report of Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government (Nichols, 1992), is the most recent comprehensive review of U.S. S&T in foreign affairs. The report calls for organizational changes in government that would incorporate more and better scientific and technological insights into the process of federal policy development, and thence into U.S. foreign policy. As the report's summary states, "The challenge for government is to organize the conduct of international affairs in order both to exploit the promise of rapid technological change and to help resolve the problems such change may generate" (p. 9).

Most of the staff resources and expertise related to international scientific and technological issues reside in the various technical agencies, those with substantial R&D budgets. Funding for international S&T is found at the intersection of the federal R&D budget (on the order of $75 billion) and the federal international affairs budget (on the order of $20 billion). There is no accurate estimate available on the amount of federal funds actually spent on international S&T activities, but the total is thought to be small.

The Carnegie Commission report estimates that there are on the order of 25 to 50 international S&T staff in each of the larger civilian technical agencies and a total of approximately 600 across the government. The report does not estimate the number of international S&T staff at the Department of Defense, which has the largest R&D budget and the greatest presence in international S&T activities of all U.S. government agencies.

What these people do varies widely from agency to agency. Some are responsible for reporting on foreign science and technology developments in areas of interest to their agency. Others coordinate international S&T agreements, programs, or projects, and some participate in the management and coordination of large scientific research and development activities. This latter is a growth area, because large distributed "megaprojects," such as those related to global change, require an increasing number of on-site scientists and administrators. Still others arrange foreign travel and perform other administrative tasks for agency officials.

Over 800 S&T Agreements
There are over 800 formal science and technology agreements between U.S. government agencies and foreign government entities. These include "umbrella" agreements at the chief-of-state level, agency-to-agency agreements at the secretarial level, and memoranda of understanding at the laboratory level. The international S&T bureaus of the technical agencies are usually involved in negotiating these agreements, initiating the interagency coordination process to obtain authority to negotiate the agreements, and providing further coordination with the State Department and the other technical agencies downstream. Agencies are known to work "off the books" with informal agreements when there are potential problems in obtaining interagency approval in a timely manner.

China provides a unique and interesting case. Scientific cooperation between the United States and China preceded and catalyzed the political normalization process. The China-U.S. S&T relationship has not only remained apolitical, but it has also come to symbolize the positive aspects of the bilateral relationship. Government-to-government S&T interaction has remained cordial in the face of trade and intellectual property disputes. As for human rights, recognition that free exchange of information is necessary for effective development and utilization of S&T for economic growth is a powerful positive influence.

The U.S.-China umbrella agreement was first signed in January 1979. It is unique in that a majority of the agency-to-agency agreements depend upon it. Unlike the situation with other countries, without the umbrella in place, implementation of programs resulting from several dozen agency-to-agency agreements would be frustrated. This was of great concern in 1991 when the umbrella came up for renewal. The aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations created pressures in Congress to halt all scientific cooperation with China. However, the renegotiations were kept out of the limelight, and the renewal was signed on schedule. In 1996, the umbrella agreement was renewed for 5 additional years, with strengthened provisions related to intellectual property rights and security obligations.

Agreements with China
Agency-to-agency agreements with China span topics from standards, satellite data, and air quality to fisheries S&T and high-energy physics. There are many important areas of research where these agreements have made cooperation more efficient and have resulted in improved research outcomes at the margin. But problems do arise. For example, cooperation in social science research has stumbled over data collection and distribution. Customs disputes have arisen over the importation and subsequent export of specialized research equipment.

The technical agencies of the U.S. government have developed an impressive array of international programs in support of their scientific and technical objectives. These include reporting on foreign R&D, conducting cooperative international R&D, and recruiting high-caliber S&T talent. Taken together, the objectives constitute a substantial portion of a de facto international S&T policy.

Information about foreign S&T is of interest to U.S. government agencies for many reasons. These include defense technology needs, intelligence requirements, responsiveness to specific legislative mandates, and agency R&D objectives. More recently, there has been an emphasis on the commercial value of foreign science and technology. A number of government agencies collect information about foreign involvement in U.S. R&D. However, most of the agencies do not evaluate in any credible way the quality of the information they report.

There are a variety of reasons for cooperating internationally in R&D. Perhaps the most obvious relates to geography: Tropical flora must be studied in the tropics, while arctic systems must be examined in the arctic. Similarly, certain types of social science or earth science research must be done at a specific location. Cooperation is also often needed to obtain the best scientific or engineering talent for the tasks at hand. The recent growth in number and size of so-called megaprojects, those R&D efforts that are large and expensive, has also placed greater importance on international teamwork.

Federal agencies established their S&T personnel policies in the 1950s, when U.S. scientific hegemony in most areas of research and development was almost complete. Today, there are persuasive arguments for having U.S. agencies cast their nets globally for scientists and engineers. Foreign researchers undoubtedly make a substantial contribution to U.S. research programs. (For an extensive discussion of this issue, see Reid and Schriesheim, 1996.) There is, nevertheless, some concern that when foreign researchers return home, they carry with them cutting-edge knowledge and techniques.

Good data are not available regarding the mobility and exchange of scientific and technological talent across national boundaries. Perhaps the best information relates to the situation between the United States and Germany. Surprisingly, the flow between the two countries was approximately equal a few years ago, when a careful count was made.2 This is so because of very substantial German support for U.S. researchers. The situation is very different in most other cases, where the differential flow of researchers strongly favors the other nations.

The excellence of the U.S. university system is a major reason for the predominantly one-way flow of S&T talent. Indeed, U.S. universities are magnets for foreign students. Nearly half of the approximately 400,000 foreign students enrolled in American universities early in this decade were in science and engineering (National Science Board, 1996). Such students received 25 percent of the master's degrees and about half of the doctorates in these fields.

China has very strong representation in the United States, with the largest number of students overall (about 43,000 in 1991-1992) (National Science Board, 1996). Eight-three percent of the Chinese students were studying at the graduate level and about two-thirds were working in the natural sciences and engineering. In 1992, American universities awarded about half as many engineering doctorates to Chinese students as did Chinese universities. Most Chinese scientists and engineers receiving U.S. doctorates plan to stay in this country. For the period 1988?1992, over 75 percent expressed a preference to work in the United States. Firm offers for employment or postdoctoral training were received by about two-thirds of those.

In recent decades, the practice of entering into international S&T agreements for the purpose of contributing to some non-S&T national policy objective has become common. The preeminence of American S&T means that access to it is highly desired by other countries. This is especially true of developing countries, and cooperative S&T agreements have routinely been made with such countries by U.S. presidents during state visits.

These agreements (as opposed to those entered into primarily to advance particular S&T objectives) have not been very productive. There are diplomatic and public relations benefits from the initial signing, but scientific and technological results are usually slim. The desired diplomatic payoffs are often short term, while good science (or even moderately good science) almost always takes a long time. Further, it is very difficult for diplomats and White House staffers with little experience or involvement in research to construct a framework for viable research in the very short time typically available for planning a presidential trip or other event that drives the need for an S&T agreement.

Since government funding of R&D depends ultimately on the utility of the R&D to the nation, and since foreign policy is an important element of the nation's policy agenda, strong incentives are needed on both sides to make the process work better. The problem is that rewards to diplomats are almost exclusively short term, while rewards to technical agencies are mostly long term.

Outsourcing and Other Trends
Private-sector investment in R&D is increasing much faster than is public-sector investment in most if not all countries. Private-sector international S&T cooperation and trade in technology is, likewise, far outpacing government-to- government interactions. Outsourcing of R&D and engineering technical services overseas and the coupling of foreign sales with technology transfer to foreign companies have become much more common. An increase in alliances between companies headquartered in different countries has resulted in more cooperative R&D and technology development. In some cases, it is technology that catalyzes the alliance; in others, technological cooperation derives from a strategic alliance with origins in manufacturing or marketing initiatives.

Private-sector technological interchanges between the United States and China take many forms. There are the well-known manufacturing operations of U.S. companies in China, in some cases for the Chinese market, in others for re-export. R&D programs in China are almost always part of these operations. Technology "offsets" are often part of procurement agreements for large purchases, such as aircraft. The related component manufacturing in China requires extensive transfer of technology as well as R&D assistance.

One of the most interesting developments in U.S.-China private-sector S&T cooperation is the alliance based on a joint research agreement. This is neither a pay-for-services arrangement nor a joint venture aimed at marketing products or services that are presently or soon to be developed. Although the ultimate objective is new product development, the intermediate steps are sharing of human resources and know-how in order to define those technologies that are the best candidates for commercialization. The initial contractual relationship is flexible enough to permit evolution of the relationship as commercialization approaches. The first such research alliance between the Rohm and Haas U.S. firm and the Shenyang Research Institute has been very successful. Not surprisingly, the role of Chinese-American scientists and engineers in the laboratories of U.S. companies has been important in bridging the cultural barriers and developing mutual trust.

How can the federal government improve the way in which it handles international science? I believe there should be two distinct objectives. The first is to incorporate S&T into our foreign policy decisions and into the development of various international policies and programs inside and outside the State Department. The second is to develop and implement policies that affect science internationally, as it is carried out in the public and private sectors. This affects publicly funded programs, especially the megaprojects and the framework for commercial S&T cooperation and trade (IPR policies, for example).

In the past, intensive study and carefully crafted legislation have not been enough, as demonstrated by the failed Title V effort. Although there is support for science in government and the policy community, that support is a mile wide and an inch deep. The only agencies able and willing to put their money into international S&T are the technical agencies, because they see tangible benefits to their missions. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, working with and through the appropriate committees of the National Science and Technology Council, can provide leadership and focus. But the technical agencies must provide personnel and funding in cooperation with the State Department.

There are three steps the United States needs to consider:

    Develop a Strong International Framework for Megaprojects in Science and Engineering
    The role of governments in R&D is decreasing. This is likely to continue. With the end of the Cold War and the advent of greatly enhanced communication capabilities, the need for official government actions to catalyze R&D cooperation is greatly reduced. Self-initiated cooperation between individual scientists and research groups is the norm, and most bilateral international R&D agreements are unnecessary.

    One huge exception to this is science and engineering megaprojects. More, not less, international government-to-government cooperation is needed in these initiatives. This is so because of cost and the need to avoid unnecessary duplication brought on by a lust for Nobel prizes. There is also a need to coordinate among competing megaprojects in very different fields of science and engineering, and to resolve unique problems that arise because of geography.

    The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has done a good job in providing a forum for discussion and analysis of this issue in recent years, and the OECD Megascience Forum report to be issued soon deserves careful consideration. It now may be the time to move toward a stronger international framework, perhaps under the G-7, where negotiations on broad issues involving megaprojects in different fields of science and engineering can complement existing and future decision-making on specific projects.

    Strengthen the Role of Science in U.S. Foreign Policy
    Science and engineering are important ingredients in diplomacy and foreign policy, but attempts to strengthen science and engineering expertise in the State Department have not been successful. Budgets and personnel have been cut and diverted, the Foreign Service personnel system makes careers for science officers bleak, and morale is low. It is time to quit trying to fix the system directly through State and to ask the technical agencies to step in. In some other countries, diplomatic S&T personnel come from technical agencies, where the personnel system understands them and provides a reasonable reward system. And S&T agencies in other nations often pay the expenses of science counselors and attaches in their embassies abroad. Adopting strategies like these could substantially improve the U.S. situation.

    Specifically, I recommend that the United States:

    • provide personnel from technical agencies to the State Department for overseas posts. NSF is the logical coordinating agency for this, with the budget shared among the other technical agencies.
    • aggressively address, in a neutral environment, the analytic needs associated with S&T in foreign policy. The home for this function should have a tradition of excellence in research and analysis and be widely respected in the domestic and overseas S&T communities. The logical place for this capability, again, is the NSF.
    • better coordinate reporting on foreign S&T needs through several regional "condominium" arrangements among interested technical agencies, with a common support network (host country agreements, communications, housing, travel, and library support).
    • continue to recruit the best talent internationally. At the same time, more of our best U.S. scientists should go to foreign centers of excellence as postdoctoral and mid-career researchers. The technical agencies should use more of their funds for this purpose.

    The Federal Government Should Do More for High-Tech Industry Internationally
    U.S. companies have been very successful in developing technology and in using that technology in international business and trade. Most large companies can take care of themselves in day-to-day technological dealings with companies and governments overseas. But there is a wide variety of issues faced by companies that could be addressed effectively by the federal government. These include broad policy issues like the high cost of obtaining and maintaining foreign patents; credible and timely reporting on important S&T trends and developments overseas; and assistance with many practical issues facing small companies such as obtaining permits related to doing business in a foreign country.

    One proposal developed during the Bush administration called for the Commerce Department to place "technology attaches" in our embassies to report on technological developments and assist U.S. high-tech companies. Suggestions have also been made to strengthen ties between the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and OSTP, to better deal with trade and technology issues. The Clinton administration has stated that technology policy should play a central role in economic and trade policy, and it dealt firmly with the R&D subsidies issue in the closing days of the GATT Uruguay Round negotiations. We need to monitor R&D subsidies and a host of other technology issues that arise directly or indirectly in the World Trade Organization and in the process close the gap between the trade and technology interests in government.

We have an opportunity to strengthen the role of S&T in foreign policy and to improve the international policy environment for R&D and innovation. This will in turn contribute to more effective utilization of S&T for the economic, environmental, and security objectives of the United States and other nations. Although international S&T has a small political constituency, if indeed it has one at all, engineers and scientists who recognize its importance can lead in shaping the debate on how best to resolve this long-standing policy challenge.

Brooks, H., and E.B. Skolnikoff. 1978. Science and Technology in an International Context: Science, Technology, and International Relations. Conference Paper 16, presented at the NATO Science Committee Twentieth Anniversary Commemoration Conference, 11-13 April.

Center for Public Issues, Denver Research Institute (CPI). 1977. New U.S. Initiatives in International Science and Technology. Report of a workshop held at the University of Denver, 13-16 April. Denver, Colo.: CPI.

Congressional Research Service. 1976. Science, Technology, and Diplomacy in the Age of Interdependence. Report prepared for the Subcommittee on International Security and Scientific Affairs of the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Science Board. 1996. Science & Engineering Indicators 1996. National Science Foundation. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Nichols, R.W. 1992. Science and Technology in U.S. International Affairs. New York: Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government.

Reid, P.P., and A. Schriesheim, eds. 1996. Foreign Participation in U.S. Research and Development: Asset or Liability? National Academy of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

1. See, for example, Science, Technology, and American Diplomacy 1993, 14th Annual Report Submitted to the Congress by the President Pursuant to Section 503(b) of Title V of Public Law 95-426. May 1993. Printed for use of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

2. This conclusion is based on data from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Bonn, Germany.

About the Author:J. Thomas Ratchford is CEO of STTA, LC, and director of the Center for Science, Trade, and Technology Policy, part of the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. This paper is adapted from testimony he delivered 25 March 1998 before the House Science Committee.