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US-Russia Cooperation in Science

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Foundation of the International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor (ITER) tokamak building. The ITER headquarters building is in the background. (Photo Credit: United States Department of Energy)


The US and Russia should continue to pursue joint-research projects across a number of scientific disciplines to reduce the economic costs of research, benefit from one another’s scientific expertise, and increase diplomatic engagement on uncontroversial issues. Projects should be limited to civilian technologies and objectives that can improve the lives of American and Russian citizens while having limited to no utility for either country’s military. By working together, the US and Russia can forego the need to build expensive, specialized research complexes or develop scientific expertise that might already exist in the other country. US-Russo science diplomacy has a long history dating back to the early years of the Cold War and can play an important role in enhancing the quality and quantity of avenues of communication in Track-Two Talks.


Maintain US Funding to the ITER Fusion Project

The ITER project is an international effort between 35 nations, including the US and Russia, to develop and build a fusion reactor capable of producing more electricity than it receives, a mission that has so far eluded the scientific community. The US and Russia previously committed to provide 9.1% of the funding for the project with the other participating nations providing the remainder of the funds. The US should maintain its commitment to the project and work to ensure that other member nations do the same.


Fusion is energy released by forcing atomic nuclei together – the same process that powers the sun. If successful, this project would be a major breakthrough in the development of fusion energy. This is significant because fusion energy is sustainable, safe, and clean. If harnessed, fusion has the potential to provide an effectively limitless source of energy without environmental drawbacks. This project is one of the premier examples of international scientific cooperation and cutting back or abandoning US support for the project could encourage other countries to do the same; given prevailing political sentiments across Europe, the EU likely would not be able to replace the US’ share of funding and ITER could be suspended or ended altogether. If this occurred, the US would lose access to a valuable research project that it paid relatively little for while also losing access to the scientific expertise the project has already attracted. Even if the project ultimately fails, the US still benefits from the connections and relationships that develop between American scientists and their international counterparts. Additionally, the knowledge gained from a hypothetical failed ITER could be applied by the American scientific community to future fusion projects.

This plan has some risk

While the US only pays 9.1% of ITER’s budget, those payments have still amounted to a cumulative total of $3.9 billion from 2003-2014 and is expected to cost at least $230 in 2018. At the same time, the project’s timeline has been extended and estimates for when initial experiments begin range from 2020 to 2025. Despite this, the Department of Energy has recommended continuing funding due to the effectiveness of reforms in the ITER project instituted by its new Director-General, Bernard Bigot. Concerns over the project should not deter the US from maintaining current levels of funding; the US does not need to commit funds on a long-term basis, so if further problems with the ITER project emerge in 2017 or 2018, the US has the option to pull out of the project then. Research and development in any field are inherently expensive, and fusion research is more expensive than most. ITER is still the most promising fusion project currently in existence, and the US currently pays a relatively small share of the project’s costs while having full access to any breakthroughs it produces.


Continue US-Russian Cooperation with the International Space Station

The US and Russia should continue their cooperation in space, especially with regards to the International Space Station (ISS), through crew exchanges, cost-sharing, and joint space research projects.


The ISS remains the most well-known example of international scientific collaboration and has taken on symbolic importance. US withdrawal from the project, or efforts to force a Russian withdrawal, would be significantly damaging to the US-Russia relationship. Continued cooperation is important to minimizing the costs of getting into orbit, maintaining and supplying the station, and conducting research. The facilities necessary for launches, production of specialized equipment, astronaut training, etc. are all expensive, and, while NASA developed strong domestic capabilities throughout the Cold War, the ISS has facilitated the use of equipment and facility sharing to bring down the total cost of space missions.

While the entry of American space companies such as SpaceX and BlueOrigin to the space market removes US dependence on the Russian-supplied Soyuz launch capsule, an open, competitive procurement process for components related to the ISS mission is more in line with American interests. By remaining open to the use of Russian components, the US will benefit from the increased rate of innovation and cost-saving that comes from market competition between commercial suppliers and Russia. Also, maintaining open competition for ISS missions raises the likelihood that other participating countries, Russia included, will use commercial components, benefiting the US economy.

On top of these benefits, crew exchanges and public diplomacy efforts involving astronauts and cosmonauts can mitigate the decline in US-Russian relations. Crew exchanges provide important contacts and relationships between the US and Russian space administrations. Astronauts and cosmonauts can hold joint press conferences and host events that can diminish hostile public sentiment that limit the options available to foreign policy decision makers. Cooperation aboard the ISS remains one of the few bright spots in US-Russia relations and it should be protected.

This plan is low risk

The US and Russia both benefit immensely from the ISS and the project itself has taken on symbolic importance in both countries. The US has already developed policies and protections to mitigate the risk of unwanted technology transfers to Russia that can be updated if deemed necessary. Research aboard the ISS is exclusively civilian in nature, and the US-Russian cooperation on the project has a strong, positive record.


Continued Joint Research Initiatives

The US and Russia should continue to promote joint research initiatives between the two countries because they drive down the cost of research, establish links between the two societies, and advance the rate of research and standards of living in both countries. Past examples include a joint effort to identify and combat “black carbon” in the Arctic, basic research in chemistry, and the development and use of the Borexino detector (pg 65).


The pursuit of civilian research between the US and Russia has a longstanding history that dates back to the Cold War and has long been a durable source of cooperation between the two countries. By taking advantage of one another’s specialized facilities and personnel, otherwise impossible research breakthroughs are able to occur much earlier than they otherwise would have. Additionally, tying up scientific personnel in research projects with peaceful purposes reduces the available stock of scientists that could be put onto military projects

This plan is low risk

Research projects are proposed and funded on a case-by-case basis that which ensures that potentially dangerous or counterproductive research will not receive funding or personnel from the US. This policy effectively increases the number of research projects available for pursuit by either government and allows for an increase in the total number of research projects that either country will ultimately benefit from.