Can’t the U.S. and Cuba Just Get Along in the Name of Science?

A trio of scientists say collaborating on research is in both countries’ national interests.

Bottled science.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
June 5, 2014, 10:36 a.m.

The deep freeze between the United States and Cuba is really put­ting a damper on sci­ence.

Strained polit­ic­al re­la­tions make it dif­fi­cult for sci­ent­ists from both na­tions to col­lab­or­ate on re­search — and the dis­con­nect could have dan­ger­ous pub­lic-health con­sequences, sci­ent­ists say.

Three sci­ent­ists are mak­ing a plea for a change in policy in an ed­it­or­i­al pub­lished Thursday in the journ­al Sci­ence, writ­ten by the heads of the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence: Pres­id­ent Ger­ald Fink, CEO Alan Lesh­ner, and Chief In­ter­na­tion­al Of­ficer Vaughan Tureki­an.

Over a cen­tury ago, in­ter­ac­tions between a Cuban sci­ent­ist, Car­los Fin­lay, and a U.S. sci­ent­ist, Jesse Lazear, led to an un­der­stand­ing of the role of the mos­quito in trans­mit­ting yel­low fever and to the de­vel­op­ment of ef­fect­ive coun­ter­meas­ures. Today, new in­fec­tious dis­eases con­front both Cuba and the United States, but a long­stand­ing dip­lo­mat­ic breach between the two na­tions now makes such valu­able joint re­search more com­plic­ated, if not im­possible.

It is time for both gov­ern­ments to re­con­sider the rules that stand in the way of sci­entif­ic col­lab­or­a­tion, be­fore a po­ten­tially deadly out­break spreads through both coun­tries and bey­ond.

The sci­ent­ists call for ex­pand­ing the lan­guage re­gard­ing li­censes un­der the Treas­ury De­part­ment’s Cuban As­sets Con­trol Reg­u­la­tions. The le­gis­la­tion cur­rently al­lows ci­vil­ian U.S. sci­ent­ists to travel to Cuba to con­duct re­search, but the sci­ent­ists say it does not re­cog­nize joint U.S.-Cuba sci­entif­ic con­fer­ences and work­shops.

Sci­ent­ists from both coun­tries could put their heads to­geth­er to mon­it­or and re­search two highly in­fec­tious dis­eases: dengue, which has been re­por­ted in Cuba, and chikun­gun­ya, which is near­ing the coun­try’s shores via Haiti. Right now, no drugs or vac­cines ex­ist to com­bat them, in Cuba or the U.S. The AAAS sci­ent­ists say that Cuba’s prox­im­ity to the U.S. main­land — just 90 miles south — and the num­ber of Amer­ic­ans that reg­u­larly travel there cre­ate the risk for a stateside out­break.

U.S. and Cuban sci­ent­ists have re­cently tried to bridge the polit­ic­al di­vide. In April, mem­bers from the AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sci­ences met in Havana, where they signed an agree­ment to co­oper­ate in re­search on in­fec­tious and neur­o­lo­gic­al dis­eases, can­cer, and an­ti­bi­ot­ic-res­ist­ant bac­teria. In May, Sen. Shel­don White­house, D—R.I., an ad­voc­ate of ocean sci­ence re­search, hos­ted a meet­ing between U.S. and Cuban mar­ine sci­ent­ists. The goal of the gath­er­ing was to make it easi­er for U.S. sci­ent­ists to get gov­ern­ment li­censes to work in Cuba, and for sci­entif­ic equip­ment to be shipped between the two coun­tries.

“Get­ting sci­entif­ic equip­ment to Cuba is very chal­len­ging be­cause of the em­bargo, but also be­cause Cuba is on the [U.S.] list of ter­ror­ist na­tions,” mar­ine sci­ent­ist Dav­id Gug­gen­heim said back then.

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