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Global Engagement from Paris to the Persian Gulf

This most recent dispatch describes events surrounding the second in a series of Science Envoy missions to build bridges and partnerships with Muslim communities and seek common solutions to global challenges—fulfilling a promise President Obama made in his New Beginning speech in June in Cairo.

[Ed. Note: The program referenced in the following blog was first announced by the President in Cairo on June 4. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the first three envoys in Marrakech in November: Bruce Alberts, Editor of Science, former National Academy of Sciences (NAS) president, and UCSF biochemistry professor; Elias Zerhouni, former National Institutes of Health director and Johns Hopkins professor; and Ahmed Zewail, who in addition to his academic work is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Other prominent U.S. scientists will be invited to join the U.S. Science Envoy program in the coming months, expanding the scope of the program to countries and regions around the globe.

The envoys are scheduled to meet with heads of state, ministers, and representatives from the scientific, education, nonprofit, and business communities to identify opportunities for new partnerships in science and technology. They will investigate opportunities in all areas of science and technology, including math, engineering, health, energy, climate change research, and green technologies. Although the envoys are private citizens, they will share what they learn on these trips with the U.S. Government, and the relationships they build will help reaffirm our renewed commitment to global engagement. This dispatch was filed on Feb. 17.]

After catching a flight out of Washington just a half an hour before the Blizzard of 2010 shuttered National airport for the 2nd time in a week, I arrived to frigid pre-dawn temperatures at Paris’s Charles De Gaulle airport. Before long I was at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), where I was joined by U.S. Science Envoy Elias Zerhouni. Dr. Zerhouni, former Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a senior advisor to the Gates Foundation, is the second in a series of Science Envoys being sent by President Obama to build bridges and partnerships with Muslim communities and seek common solutions to global challenges—fulfilling a promise the President made in his New Beginning speech in June in Cairo.

Snow was looming on the Parisian horizon, but Dr. Zerhouni was warmly received by senior diplomats and officials from Muslim majority countries spanning the crescent from Nigeria and Morocco through Saudi Arabia to Malaysia. He also met with UNESCO General Director Irina Bokova to discuss how international cooperation in science and technology could help alleviate such pressing problems as food and water insecurity, impending shortages of teachers, and lack of access to health care as the world’s population grows to a projected 9 billion by 2300.

Next, Dr. Zerhouni met with the Paris press corps, including a number of radio and new media outlets that cater to diasporic Muslim communities in Europe. He also recorded a podcast reflecting on how he began his American life as an immigrant with an Algerian medical degree and few English skills and rose to running the NIH, the crown jewel of Federal biomedical research facilities, with 27,000 employees.

Later, Dr. Zerhouni and I parted ways on Place de la Concorde: I was on a mission to deliver two large containers of equipment to help a NASA engineer repair Morocco’s main teaching telescope located near a high dam in the mountains east of Rabat, and he had a meeting to attend in Zurich. But we met up again in Doha, Qatar, where Dr. Zerhouni continued his Envoy duties—this time teamed up with Secretary Hillary Clinton, Senator John Kerry, Special Representative Farah Pandith, Pradeep Ramamurthy of the National Security Council, U.S. Envoy Richard Holbrooke, and 150 other participants at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum for dialogue on U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

President Obama addressed the crowd by videoconference, amplifying the message of collaboration he offered in Cairo. And for three busy days Dr. Zerhouni helped fuel the process of turning that Presidential commitment into reality. He met informally with the Science and Environment Working Group at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, whose representatives—from Muslim-majority countries across Africa and Asia—were crafting a report with recommendations to the United States and other governments. He met with the Emir of Qatar and several members of the royal family. And he met with the Prime Minister and other key ministers as well as scientists, officials, local leaders, and young people from this dynamic coastal city on the Persian Gulf. Wherever he went, he was met with a combination of enthusiasm and energy not often seen at science and technology meetings; there was a palpable sense in every forum that shared interests in science and technology have real potential to help bring diplomatic priorities to fruition.

Among the major themes discussed were the importance of education and innovation, including the need for job creation for hundreds of millions of young people in Muslim communities; the need to develop online communities of learning and exchanges of information; and the value of working together to solve issues related to food and water security, climate change, science policy, and public health. Dr. Zerhouni has now arrived in Riyadh, and will continue on to Kuwait City and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia before returning to the United States, where he will brief the President and help inform an effort to achieve some of the goals developed through this unprecedented outreach program.

Bill Lawrence is Senior Advisor for Science Partnerships at the State Department