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Scientists Press for Russian-U.S. Life Sciences Funding
WASHINGTON -- An expert panel formed by Russia and the United States said on Friday it is urging the governments to create a joint life sciences funding mechanism that could help fill in gaps left by two key bilateral nonproliferation projects that are set to expire.
Moscow is poised this June to end participation in the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative and in 2015 to end collaboration with the International Science and Technology Center. The programs, both established at the end of the Cold War, seek to combat the spread of unconventional arms respectively by eliminating Soviet-era nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and by providing peaceful employment to WMD specialists in the former bloc.
Russia's intention to withdraw from the Nunn-Lugar program "brought a huge blow to the idea of cooperation," and its coming withdrawal from the International Science and Technology Center will have a similar impact, said Kavita Berger, a biosecurity expert who sat on the 12-person committee that authored the report. "What is the framework under which we cooperate?" she asked at the unveiling of the draft findings.
The proposed funding mechanism would incorporate a leadership board with participants appointed by both governments, and it would operate out of "small offices embedded in existing institutions in both countries." The International Science and Technology Center might have to close its Moscow headquarters following Russia's planned withdrawal.
Program funds would equally support scientific institutions in each country. The report recommends providing three-year awards of as much as $2 million to each of between 15 and 20 biological science projects in the fund's first year of operation; the number of supported activities could expand in subsequent years.
Financed projects could "indirectly" support the goal of securing biological materials or expertise against diversion, but its primary focus would be to foster broader scientific collaboration between the countries, the report states.
Moscow and Washington are ending much of their "security-driven" life sciences cooperation, but both sides "recognize that the prevention of proliferation has many dimensions, including providing scientists with defense-related backgrounds with the skills and opportunities to pursue stable civilian-oriented career tracks," the experts wrote.
The report's authors "did not try to sell [their recommendations] on short-term security benefits" during a Thursday meeting with senior National Security Council staff and other Obama administration officials, said Glenn Schweitzer, a National Research Council staffer who assisted in the document's preparation.
"The thrust of our report is there are many more dimensions of biosecurity that play out over the long run," he told Global Security Newswire during a question-and-answer session. "It's the whole system that one has to strengthen, not just one laboratory or group of people that build fences around them. Our officials understand that."
The expert panel plans to make the case for its proposals to Russian officials in formal talks late next month, but the findings have already had a "positive" reception from specialists at multiple government ministries there, Sergey Netesov, a panel member and Novosibirsk State University microbiologist, said by telephone.
The International Science and Technology Center has developed a "unique role in supporting cooperation linked to proliferation concerns," but Russia decided it would no longer prioritize the multilateral organization's central goal of redirecting "underemployed defense scientists to civilian tasks," the draft edition of the report says. "But the committee responsible for this report believes that the accumulated experience of the ISTC deserve careful attention, within Russia and globally."
The analysis cites "widespread concern that [the organization's] past achievements may atrophy." The two-year study -- funded by the State Department and the Russian Academy of Sciences -- examined records and interviewed participants from the International Science and Technology Center and an array of other collaborative life sciences activities.
"New bilateral mechanisms to carry on the work initiated through the ISTC can increase the likelihood that momentum in gaining common understanding on biosecurity issues throughout the states of the former Soviet Union will not decline significantly," the document states.
The panel plans to release the report's final version before members begin formal outreach efforts in Russia in the third week of March, Schweitzer said.
It is unclear when the proposed fund could begin operating, Schweitzer told GSN after the presentation, adding it "would be amazing" for Washington to accept the initiative "in principle" before the end of this year. The report acknowledges the United states has "signficantly reduced financial support for bioengagement" in recent years, but argues that "the case is strong" for bolstering such cooperation with Russia "even in the face of budget stringency by both governments."
This article provides an overview of the United States’ historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.