Oh, Stubborn Science

By José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez on March 24, 2023

Thanks to a kind invitation from the Cuban Academy of Sciences (ACC) we had the opportunity to participate in the High Level Workshop, jointly organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the highest Cuban scientific institution. The event, which took place in Havana on March 20-21, came just five months after the AAAS and the ACC signed a memorandum of understanding, with the aim of relaunching relations that began to develop in 1997.

AAAS is the world’s largest scientific organization (over 120,000 effective members), which by definition is dedicated to the development of U.S. science diplomacy programs, with a variety of funding ranging from federal to private, or a conjunction thereof. Unlike the two major U.S. science academies, its fundamental effort is directed at connecting those scholars, institutions or projects, domestic or foreign, that share research themes, purposes and that respond to the most pressing issues in science.

The AAAS manages the so-called Science family of publications. In addition to this journal, five other specialized journals are published: Advances in Science, Robotics, Immunology, on physiological and pathological mechanisms (Science Signaling), as well as the integration of medicine, engineering and science to promote human health (Science Translational Medicine). As of the beginning of 2023, the AAAS allows publication in these media without the previously mandatory fee requirement to publish research results.

At specific times in the past, Science has published texts on the advancement of science in Cuba and, more importantly, on the common purposes that have linked AAAS and ACC and the joint efforts to relaunch a sustainable, lasting and mutually satisfactory relationship that can develop beyond political ups and downs.

Based on the above, it is not by chance that most of the presentations of the various panels in both days had their thematic axes around health problems in general (human and animal), as well as those related to the environment.

On the American side, in addition to Dr. Gilda Barabino, president of the AAAS, Dr. Sudip Parikh, executive director of the association and the Nobel Prize (2003) and leading authority in the fight against malaria in the world, Dr. Peter Agre, who was the first president of the AAAS to visit Cuba in the mid-90s of the last century and who also holds the status of corresponding member of the ACC, were present. The delegation was also composed of renowned specialists from AAAS, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and non-governmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Ocean Foundation (TOF).

On the Cuban side, the event was co-chaired by Dr. Luis Velázquez, president of the ACC, assisted by the main directors of the academy, together with biotechnology specialists such as Doctors Agustín Lage and Tania Crombet, directors of CITMA, the MES, Doctors Luis Alberto Montero and Jorge Núñez Jover from the University of Havana, as well as experts who had responsibilities at the national level in the fight against covid-19, such as Dr. Ileana Morales. The Center for International Policy Research participated, for the first time in these exchanges, from the contribution offered by the social sciences to sustaining this specific type of bilateral relationship.

For the level of both representations, for the quality of the contents discussed and the projections made on each topic, it can well be stated that this is an unprecedented event in the last seven years, only surpassed at the official level by the programs developed in the respective capitals during 2016 by the then Cuban Minister of Public Health, Dr. Morales Ojeda and the then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell.

The event, which took place when Cuba is already talking in the past regarding covid-19, attracted the attention of several experts in communicable diseases from the United States, which is why several specialists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) were present in the panels. This institution was headed until 2022 by the very renowned Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who on several occasions has expressed his recognition of Cuba’s work in dealing with these diseases. The NIAID is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, the U.S. government’s principal agency for research associated with biomedicine and public health, attached to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, is considered one of the largest clinical centers in the world.

The NIAID devotes 25% of its budget to a section called Biodefense, which in itself indicates the attention paid by the US authorities to the occurrence of future pandemics, or to the use of disease-transmitting agents for military purposes.

The event clearly expressed the challenges that humanity must face together in these fields, in which success can only be achieved jointly. By the way, on several occasions, scientists from both countries expressed in the panels the opportunity presented for collaboration not only at the bilateral level, since the results of the same would be of urgent application in the Caribbean and Latin American environment.

This was also the first time that health experts heard about the progress made by environmentalists from both countries and vice versa. In spite of being different fields of knowledge, these two areas share the same need to confront the countless legal, economic and other restrictions that have been in place for years by decision of the U.S. authorities.

In that framework, there was shared jubilation about the progress in the joint endeavor between Roswell Park Cancer Center (Buffalo, New York) and the Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) approved since 2017 for the confrontation against cancer, which recently received the permits for the expansion of its purposes. It was also discussed how the actions of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Ocean Fund have cooperated over the past 15 years with Cuban environmental agencies, to protect the coasts, reefs and species present in our common seas. Each of the presentations ended with the resounding “yes we can” that human beings reaffirm to themselves in times of crisis.

Another truth was evident: scientific cooperation between the two countries has already gone through the time when there were doubts about the quality of basic science in Cuba and also when there were reservations about whether agreements could be reached and executed. The vast majority of the memoranda signed between Cuba and the United States between 2015 and 2017 are related in one way or another to scientific issues. From the top of the U.S. executive branch, attempts were made to freeze their implementation, but they could not stop the permanent conversation that has taken place until today between scientists from both shores.

Forty-eight hours of exchanges were not enough to present all the ideas, nor all the possibilities; the conversation will continue and will reach new objectives. The only remaining question is whether or not the U.S. authorities will be willing to accompany the process to its full extent.

And a small detail no less significant. The venue for the talks was the building that housed the ACC at its founding moment in 1861, after waiting for years for permission from the Spanish crown, to create what would be the first academy of its kind in this region of the world that has come to be called the Western Hemisphere. The images of the eminent Carlos J. Finlay, Joaquín Albarrán, José Antonio Saco, Nicolás José Gutiérrez, Félix Varela, Ramón Zambrana and many others, who were our first scientific mambises in the manigua of knowledge, were there as witnesses.

Source: Cubadebate, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – US