Science and Technology: The Invisible Pillar of Transatlantic Cooperation

Cooperation in science and research is embedded in the transatlantic relationship. And yet, ironically, it is politically and diplomatically underused and often considered marginal—or ignored entirely—by the transatlantic policy community. This should change.

Science and technology (S&T) is and will be important to the security and prosperity of both the United States and Europe. As outlined in the US National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2030, the nexus of food, water, energy, and other resources, in connection with climate change, is likely to have broad global impact over the coming decades. In addition, technological innovations related to the accumulation and use of data, advanced manufacturing, resources, and health could transform economic, political, and military activities around the world.

The economic interface between Europe and the United States and the reliance of both economies on science and technological innovations also compel both to deepen S&T cooperation. This is especially true when it comes to the great emerging challenges of our time—energy and climate change, urbanization, resource scarcity, and aging societies, to name a few—all of which demand scientific cooperation and effective integration of scientific perspectives into policymaking processes.

The US-European partnership is foundational for US foreign policy. The transatlantic relationship is a proven alliance based on common values, dense economic and institutional connections, and a long history of cooperation in service of mutual interests. Mirroring the close political relationship, scientific collaboration across the Atlantic is extensive, reflecting a shared commitment to the highest standards of scientific inquiry and integrity and excellence in science and research.

At a time of drift in the transatlantic relationship, the partnership between the United States and Europe needs a new sense of purpose, value, and relevance. Strategic transatlantic cooperation on S&T could yield tangible benefits to both parties by delivering better policy and good science. It would provide a stabilizing pillar for transatlantic relations during a period of fundamental and rapid change in the relationship and the global system. The successful “mainstreaming” of scientific cooperation in transatlantic relations also might offer useful lessons on how to more fully integrate S&T into US foreign policy.

Transatlantic S&T collaboration and transatlantic policy cooperation thrive in parallel, but separate, worlds. The types of S&T cooperation across the Atlantic can vary and include full-blown collaborative projects, nationally funded research projects that include transatlantic and other international partners, and foreign research stays and informal exchanges. Although information is fragmented and incomplete, bottom-up scientific collaboration between the United States and Europe appears to be both extensive and broad ranging.

The transatlantic policy agenda is expansive as well, but has not fully integrated science and technology cooperation or expertise in a systematic way. In part, the continued marginalization of science in the transatlantic agenda is a historical legacy. During the Cold War, with the exception of exchanges on nuclear risks and arms control, geopolitical and security concerns largely pushed science and technology cooperation to the margins of “soft” or “cultural” transatlantic diplomacy. Though the world has changed fundamentally, transatlantic policy dialogues, both government-led and nongovernmental, continue to be heavy on “high politics” and thin on actual scientific expertise. There are some exceptions, as seen in transatlantic dialogues on climate change and energy. For the most part, however, the nongovernmental transatlantic policy community essentially duplicates the “high politics” bias of government agencies.

The fixation on an increasingly daunting and grand geopolitical agenda means ignoring issue areas with substantial S&T contact where US-European cooperation could deliver successful and mutually beneficial outcomes.

For example, both the United States and Europe must plan for the effects of extreme storm events and rising sea levels, as well as the other related social and economic effects of climate change. The Netherlands has introduced multiple, world-class technical and policy innovations in the areas of flood mitigation, storm water modeling, and integrated river basin management. An integrated, transatlantic dialogue involving government agencies at the national and sub-national level; geopolitically and technically focused NGOs; and universities, companies, associations, and individual researchers, could help determine which of these innovations could be successfully transferred to the environmental, political, and legal landscape of Louisiana or other threatened regions.

S&T cooperation should not be considered solely a cosmetic add-on to the transatlantic partnership. Rather, it should be a central pillar of a new architecture of cooperation between the United States, the EU, and the scientific enterprises of the United States and leading European states. To achieve this strategic integration, the transatlantic policy community should make a serious effort to integrate science, scientific expertise, and scientific networks into its activities. By the same token, the S&T community needs to look beyond its scientific aims, and consider how scientists and scientific expertise might be appropriately and strategically connected to policy dialogues, including high-level exchanges such as the Transatlantic Economic Dialogue, the Transatlantic Climate Bridge, or the German Embassy’s “Skills Initiative.”

Much of S&T collaboration of course will be pursued independent of transatlantic policy aims, as will transatlantic policy dialogues with little S&T content or relevance. But many issues on the expanded transatlantic agenda can and should integrate scientific considerations and expertise, including but not limited to discussions of climate change; sustainable development; water, food, and energy; and the impact of technological innovation on the transatlantic and global economy.

Going Forward

Despite repeated assurances of shared interests and values, transatlantic relations today are permeated by a sense of disappointed expectations and uneasy questions about the Alliance’s future and relevance. Beyond the orchestrated unity of high-level meetings, US and European leaders find it harder to agree on a common approach to both urgent, near-term crises and the grand challenges of our time. To many Americans, Europe seems increasingly unlikely to emerge any time soon as the strong and united partner that the United States seeks and requires. To Europeans, the United States appears paralyzed by mounting debt and political dysfunction that threaten its long-term prosperity and hamper American efforts to exercise continued global leadership.

As policy experts debate the need for a fundamental overhaul of US government processes and structures, the transatlantic relationship should not be ignored. Science diplomacy can and should be central to one of the oldest and most important foreign relationships of the United States—its partnership with Europe. The strategic integration of S&T into US-European relations, outlined here, could give new relevance to transatlantic cooperation and help build the foundation for the expansive global cooperation that is needed to navigate the dangers and opportunities of the emerging global system.

Cathleen S. Fisher is president of the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This column is based on her longer essay “The Invisble Pillar of Transatlantic Cooperation: Activating Untapped Science and Technology Assets,” in the journal Science & Diplomacy.

Image: us-eu-flags-intertwined.jpg