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20 years of working with partners to bring progress and peace through science

NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

24 Oct. 2012

The first formal meeting of the then NATO Science Committee with representatives of Central and Eastern European countries took place twenty years ago in October 1992. This marked the opening of NATO’s science programme to partner countries, following the end of the Cold War. Reaching out to scientific communities was seen to have natural potential for international cooperation that could be harnessed to help promote peace.

The opening of NATO’s science programme to partners followed the decision by Allied leaders, at the Rome Summit in November 1991, to enhance non-military scientific cooperation between NATO and countries of the former Warsaw Pact. These countries had also been invited to join the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, a forum for security dialogue and cooperation, which held its inaugural meeting in December 1991.

Universalism, objectivity and a reliance on peer review are inherent to the scientific process, which gives scientific communities a natural potential for international cooperation. Scientists are also generally highly respected in their communities. The founders of the NATO Science Programme in 1958 – the "Three Wise Men", Foreign Ministers Halvard Lange of Norway, Gaetano Martino of Italy and Lester Pearson of Canada –affirmed that “scientific and technological developments can be decisive factors in determining the security of countries and their positions in world affairs.”

So it was felt that promoting networking and collaboration between scientists to address problems of common concern, could contribute to building wider understanding and confidence. Science is both a means of finding answers to critical questions and a way of connecting nations.

At a gathering of scientists from 104 countries at the Vatican in 1993, Prof. Antonio Zichichi, the Italian member of the NATO Science Committee at the time, told Pope John Paul II about NATO’s efforts to sponsor scientific cooperation with its former adversaries. He reported back from the meeting that “His Holiness underscored his view that the highest scientific priority is the protection of man and his environment and that collaboration in these fields with science in Central and Eastern Europe can contribute to peace on the continent.”

Widening networks

By 1999, cooperation had opened up to the seven countries participating in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue (Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia). It had also become a requirement for all activities sponsored under NATO’s science programme to include scientists from partner countries.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Programme in 2008, Jean-François Bureau, then Chairman of the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Committee as well as Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy affirmed that: “The wide range of topics addressed incorporates a horizon-scanning approach that intends to support the Alliance and its partners in future challenges, and to broaden knowledge and increase support among public opinions.”

In 2010, the SPS Programme was opened for collaboration to experts in the countries participating in NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). More recently, collaboration has started with global partners, such as Mongolia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Promoting collaboration

Over the years, NATO-sponsored science activities have funded joint research, participation in workshops, training and study institutes, expert visits and science fellowships in fields such as physics and engineering sciences, life sciences, human and societal dynamics, disarmament technologies, science and technology policy, advanced technology, computer networking, environmental and earth sciences.

Today, the NATO SPS Programme gives priority to research and collaboration in the field of civil science and security to facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation on issues of common interest.

Every year around 10,000 scientists participate in SPS activities. Participating countries benefit from sharing know-how from leading-edge research and technology. Some 400 institutes are currently involved in more than 100 activities sponsored by the SPS programme.

A special programme of support for cooperation between scientists and experts from Russia and NATO countries has also been established within the Science for Peace and Security Programme after the signature of an agreement between NATO SPS and the Russian Ministry of Science and Technology. Under the NATO-Russia Council SPS Committee, an important focus of current work is explosives detection, including the STANDEX (Stand-off Detection of Explosives) project, which aims to develop technology that will enable the detection of explosive devices in mass transport environments, and research into countering improvised explosive devices. An Expert Group on Psychological and Sociological Consequences of Terrorism has also been established in 2002. It was the first expert group established in the NRC SPS framework.

Tackling emerging security challenges

Many SPS projects seek to foster regional cooperation to address issues of shared concern.

Assistance has been provided to help partner countries structure their research programmes and set up infrastructure. This includes a major computer network and internet access project known as the “Virtual Silk Highway Project”, which was first launched in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and has since been extended to universities as well as some governmental institutions in Afghanistan.

In the South Caucasus, for example, projects are underway to monitor river pollution and to build capacity and promote cross-border cooperation in response to earthquakes.

A project involving Belarus and Ukraine is developing a modern flood monitoring and forecast system for the Pripyat River Basin. This region often suffers severe floods that destroy crops and put people and property in danger with the additional risk of radioactive contamination, since the river runs through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Following the successful completion of a project in Azerbaijan to clean up stocks of the hazardous rocket-fuel oxidizer known as mélange, a similar process was conducted in Uzbekistan.

Scientists and experts from the Mediterranean Dialogue framework have been involved in several SPS projects and activities. Good results have been generated in research related to the management of water resources (Jordan, Israel), combating desertification (Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco), disaster forecast and prevention (Mauritania), and counter-terrorism (Israel).

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