by Jonathan Hale, Bureau for Europe and Eurasia

Dr. Holdren discussing science and innovation with students at Bauman State University, March 3, 2011 (photograph courtesy US Embassy, Moscow)

Last week I travelled to Moscow to take part in meetings on science cooperation with Dr. John Holdren, who is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Dr. Holdren and Russian Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko lead the Science and Technology Working Group of the U.S. – Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission.  I represented USAID at the Working Group meetings here in Russia.

During the Cold War, both the United States and Russia focused on science for defense purposes and to create weapons. In the 21st Century, why can’t we cooperate to find science-based solutions to global challenges like hunger, poverty, global infectious diseases, and climate change? The Obama administration believes we must and Dr. Holdren and I brought that message to Russia. We want to explore science cooperation to improve the human condition and to promote development. As President Obama has said, science must have its “rightful place” and as USAID Administrator Shah has made clear science and innovation must be at the center of development. We found an interested and receptive audience in Moscow.

In addition to meetings with Russian government officials, Dr. Holdren spoke at Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which is often described as Russia’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Among its many programs, Bauman University trains scientists and engineers for Russia’s space program. Many Bauman students asked Dr. Holdren how science can be used to better protect the environment and to fight climate change.  He told them President Obama wants to invest in science to help create a clean energy future.

Russia is ready to contribute high-tech solutions to global challenges. (photograph courtesy US Embassy, Moscow)

During my trip, I explored how to promote new peer-to-peer collaborations among U.S. scientists and research universities focused on seeking science-based solutions to development challenges such as global climate change. We want to find new clean energy solutions that can benefit not only the United States and Russia, but also developing countries. We want to promote breakthroughs that can lead to wider deployment of affordable clean energy technology in rural and rapidly urbanizing areas and spur a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

One possible avenue could be to create an international prize aimed at inspiring progress toward a scientific or technological goal of importance to both countries. Prizes can drive innovation and creativity and leverage resources efficiently. They have a long record of success from the Orteig Prize that led to Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean to the Ansari X Prize, which led to the first non-governmental launch of a reusable manned spacecraft into space and back.  It’s clear from my trip that the enormous shared scientific potential of the U.S. and Russia could easily bring our two nations closer together in the months and years ahead.