Science as Diplomacy, nothing new

Healthcare is a big deal these days. In the US costs are soaring, arguably Obama’s legacy rests on his controversial law the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans have risked shutting down the government over the law. So, it’s no surprise when it’s in the news for other reasons. According to The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the group that publishes the prestigious journal Science, healthcare is now starting to impact diplomacy. Researchers from several different countries are creating novel ways to introduce addicts in both China and the US to the other’s style of medicine. In the US traditional Chinese methods are being experimented within clinics. While in China “western” medicine is being introduced in a very specific manner to address the same issues.

There are several organizations beyond the one I linked to above that deal with cross-cultural issues using either science, engineering, or healthcare. Organizations like Doctor’s Without Boarders work in many different parts of the world to bring care to those in need. These are volunteers that are doing good deeds to bring care to those that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

A similar organization is Engineer’s Without Boarders, which improves local conditions of a village or community through technology. For example, one of my friends I met Austin (now teaching at Harvard) would regularly visit a community in Mexico to install different solar panel arrays. This allowed them to have clean drinking water, power for mobile devices, cooking, and heating.

All of these activities help develop good will from one country to another. In fact, foreign exchange students that fully engage with their classmates are also great diplomats. I know that while I was abroad in Europe my friends decided that they would want to visit the US because I introduced them to what people in the US could be like rather than what they’d heard on the TV.

Interestingly, science and engineering have been used for diplomatic reasons for a very long time. I find the most interesting to be the period after World War II. Science played a huge part in rebuilding nearly all of western Europe as well as Japan. Why did we do that? Because we felt having Germany and Japan as allies against the Soviet Union was more important than kicking an enemy while they were down.

The German’s had invented the V2 rocket, which the US wanted to use for our own rockets as well as for nobler purposes. To gain the technical competence to build the rockets we decided to recruit as many Germans scientists as possible and bring them to the US. These were Nazi’s and some of them were likely war criminals, however because we needed them for the Cold War we decided to take advantage of them.

The trade wasn’t simply one way though. The US government encouraged companies to open their doors to European companies. This allowed our allies to rebuild their economy. In fact, the US business leaders like Deming to Japan, which eventually enabled Toyota to best the US automakers with techniques they turned down. These interactions dramatically changed how Europe and Japan evolved over the next few decades.

Diplomacy using science isn’t anything new. It was influential through the Marshall Plan after WWII and will continue to influence the rest of the world. It could be argued that our patent system enables the US prescription drug consumer to subsidize all other economies for their prescription drug use. This is an accidental type of diplomacy that is make the lives better for billions around the world.

I hope that in the future we will continue to influence the world through science and technology support. However, it is best if we help develop the technologies with locals rather than handing them a finished product. As the book Shock of the Old argues in many contexts the newest technology isn’t the best, the best technology is what does the job well enough that the people using the technology can understand and keep running.

The Power of Old Technology

So most of what I post about is about innovation and how that can impact the economy. However, these innovations can take years to hit the larger part of a given market let alone the greater population (either in a country or in the world). I think it’s pretty obvious why it takes so long for technology to diffuse in a given area, but I’ll list some. I think the two biggest adoption slow downs are price and lock-in. I think price is fairly straight forward, if you can’t afford it you can’t buy it right away. You have to wait until the product reaches a price point you can afford. This may mean that you bought an original iPhone when the iPhone 3GS came out or something along those lines. Lock-in is a little bit more complicated. There can be a couple different types of lock-in. Keeping with the cell phone example, you are locked into a specific network based on your contract, and in some cases with the difficulty in taking your number to the new network with you. The other type of lock in is the fact that you are already using a phone. You may already really enjoy using your Blackberry, because you use Blackberry messenger, so you’re going to continue using Blackberry phones even if it is a lesser product.

Most of those examples are from our developed world. Most of the time we don’t think about how the rest of the world uses technology. In parts of India people are still using those old Nokia phones we had about 10 years ago. They were sturdy phones that were able to call and text. In those areas were the only connection is a mobile phone that is powered by a solar panel these old technologies are important. The problem with mixing new technologies like solar panels with rural farmers that still mostly use a hoe for farming is that they have no abilities to fix or deal with a broken solar panel. While most people in the developed world do not either, there are people that do have the experience and they are only a phone call away.

Old technologies also have a habit of making a comeback. Look at the recent explosion of LP sales. This technology was basically dead during the 80’s and 90’s, however it’s extremely popular now again. This is partially because of other effects. The fact that when you purchase many LPs you are able to get a digital version of the album makes it less risky for you to buy the LP. I say risky, not that there is much risk, because without that most people would result to downloading a copy of the album and with the copyright system the way it is, you risk lawsuits etc.

There’s an interesting book on this topic. It’s called “Shock of the Old” by David Edgerton. It’s a great read, pretty fast to get through it too. There’s some surprising numbers in there. For instance, the Nazi’s used more horses in WWII than the British did in WWI. While they were used for carrying supplies, it’s not something we see in movies or video games. Apparently even the US had 1 horse for every 4 men.

Are there any old technologies that you’ve seen a resurfacing of, or that you’ve heard of being used today?