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Dobriansky: Building Bridges Through Science

Building Bridges Through Science

Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Remarks to the Academy for Sciences in the Developing World (TWAS)
Alexandria, Egypt
November 30, 2005

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests:

It is both fitting and a pleasure to join you here today at the New Library of Alexandria. Like the first great library of Alexandria, it is not just a repository for books and manuscripts. It is a center of scholarship and learning, a place of dialogue and understanding. It is a place where all of us, together, can create a better world through the expansion and application of knowledge.

As the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, observed of this library's ancestor, "That great library was a unique ecumenical effort, a testament to the human intellect and imagination, and it remains etched in the memories of all scientists and intellectuals to this day." The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina embodies this spirit and aims to be a center for dialogue between peoples and civilizations. That goal is both vital and worthy of the history and the future of this renowned institution.

The world is full of complex problems: disease, pollution, natural resource management, hunger, poverty, natural disasters, and sustainable development. They are problems that reach across borders, and they are problems no nation can solve alone.

Yet there is hope, even much hope, which comes from two sources. The first is science and the application of science to global problems. As recognized in a recent report by the Inter-Academy Panel -- a coalition of national science academies from 95 countries -- science, technology and engineering have incredible power to invent a better future for people worldwide. The report, which was co-chaired by Dr. Serageldin and Dr. Jacob Palis of Brazil, observes that thanks to science and technology, people now live longer, healthier, and more productive lives than ever before.

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The second source of hope is the power of global cooperation, in which the best minds come together to solve problems irrespective of borders, irrespective of nationalities. Cooperation, whether on small research projects or massive initiatives like the Human Genome Project, is a proven cornerstone of success.

As the President referenced this morning, we need to close the digital gap between developed and developing countries, and developing countries must work together. When this happens, the results are impressive. Since Egypt is our host today, I would like to highlight three examples of science and technology cooperation between our two countries. First, in a coalition of Egypt's Central Metallurgical Research and Development Institute, the University of Florida, and an American company named Bountiful Applied Research Corporation, scientists developed an environmentally-friendly new technology to recycle the toxic waste known as black liquor from rice paper production. Using this recently patented process, toxic waste is processed to yield organic soil supplements to improve soil quality. The liquid is recycled.

In a second example, researchers from Cairo University and Georgetown University in Washington, DC discovered a previously unknown link between hepatitis C and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which is a form of lymph node cancer. The United States National Institutes of Health has since awarded the researchers a five-year $2 million grant to continue their work on genetic, environmental and viral risk factors for liver cancer.

The third example began as a private initiative by the Director of Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing, Professor Farouk El-Baz, who is with us this morning. An Egyptian-American, Dr. El-Baz has made discoveries in remote sensing that will allow us to identify, from space, sources of underground water near refugee camps in Darfur. This groundbreaking discovery could ease substantially the suffering of people in a severely troubled region, and I am proud that the U.S. National Science Foundation has helped fund this extraordinary research.

In order to encourage exactly this sort of collaboration, my government has signed science and technology agreements with many countries. For instance, we have signed agreements with Brazil, Chile, Thailand, India and Vietnam. In this region, we have concluded an agreement with Tunisia and are finalizing negotiations with Algeria and Morocco. I am proud to say our commitment to S&T cooperation is longstanding. In fact, just last night, I participated in an event commemorating ten years of science and technology cooperation with our host country, Egypt. We signed the renewal of this agreement in this very renowned institution.

These agreements help other countries. They also help America. They are based on mutual interest, and that is the source of their power. International cooperation gives scientists and researchers access to places, people and ideas that are critical to success. It gives us access to cutting edge research and information about emerging issues. Most importantly, international cooperation gives us unfettered access to the most powerful source of a better future through science--the human mind.

The United States knows well that science is global: over a third of science doctorates, and nearly two thirds of engineering doctorates, awarded by American Universities every year are earned by foreign students. Most of those students take their knowledge back home; some stay in the United States, but all enrich the global scientific dialogue. Moreover, American science and engineering faculties are full of professors who originally came from other countries. These include Dr. Ahmed Zewail--who was born only 60 kilometers from here--and who won the 1999 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. Dr. Zewail is now Director of the Laboratory for Molecular Sciences at the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech).

Government-to-government cooperation is important, but a critical aspect of science and technology cooperation is that it also builds strong ties between students, researchers, scientists, engineers, health care workers, and businesses directly. Private citizens can band together to solve problems on their own, often even faster and more creatively than governments.

I would like to tell you about a project I read about in the newspaper just last week. At the World Summit of the Information Society in Tunisia earlier this month, Professor Nicholas Negroponte and a team of researchers and students at MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts unveiled the prototype of a durable, hand-cranked laptop computer that will cost just $100. This laptop computer is the core of a "One Laptop per Child Initiative" that seeks to give every child, everywhere in the world, the power of computing and the Internet even if they do not have electricity.

This project impresses me because of its ingenuity and also because of its generosity. It was developed privately by people who felt true compassion for others and wanted to help. The $100 laptop is not yet a reality, but it is an idea -- rooted in science and technology -- that could change the world. It is an investment in the future.

The One Laptop per Child Initiative also recognizes something I believe deeply, that education is the key to our global future. As President Mubarak also underscored this morning, all of us must work together to ensure that the best minds are cultivated and then drawn upon to solve complex scientific and engineering problems. This means that we must do better to educate young people throughout the world in science and mathematics.

Science education provides opportunities for upward mobility by boys and girls worldwide and gives them tools to think critically about problems and understand the world around them.

Science and mathematics education is a problem for developed and developing countries alike. In America, our National Academy of Sciences has recently called for improved mathematics and science education at the primary and secondary levels.

In addition to educating young people, we must ensure broad participation in science and mathematics so that the intellectual capital of our societies is tapped to the fullest possible extent. This means encouraging women and other under-represented groups to study science, engineering, and mathematics.

We can see the possibilities when such doors are open. For instance, Dr. Speciosa Kazibwe, a surgeon and former vice president of Uganda, was one of three co-chairs of a major InterAcademy report requested by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. The report, entitled "Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture," recommends scientific and technological solutions to increase agricultural productivity and food security. To address persistent global problems like hunger, we need exactly this kind of thinking. We need people like Dr. Kazibwe.

Drawing more women into the sciences is an area in which my own country still seeks to bring about change, though we ourselves have made strides in my lifetime. The president of MIT, not to mention other leading scientific universities in the United States, is now a woman scientist and there are many prominent women in the science and engineering communities. Together, let us encourage the most talented individuals, regardless of gender or ethnicity or background, to join the community of science. Together, let us do better to train all young people -- girls and boys alike -- in mathematics and science.

Over two thousand years ago, scholars in Alexandria's ancient library calculated the circumference of the Earth, isolated the function of the heart, and developed further innovations to the calendar, such as the leap year. This was a center of science and mathematics and a bastion of learning unlike any the world had ever known before. It brought together great minds to solve major problems. And it succeeded.

Today, the Academy for Sciences in the Developing World seeks to promote scientific excellence and recognize scientific accomplishments. It brings together great minds to solve major problems. The United States stands with you in this very important effort and hopes that together we will succeed again.

May we, through science, make the future brighter for all of us.

Released on December 5, 2005


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