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Small committee with global clout

The International Environmental Programs Committee is a small, inconspicuous committee within the much larger structure of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. It has a very limited staff and a small budget to do its work of stimulating research and education on major international environmental issues.

The topics have been wide-ranging and important; some of them have become major international issues of policy, even the subjects of treaties. They range from problems associated with toxic substances, including pesticides and radioactivity, to the carbon dioxide problem and potential man-made changes in climate. The committee's activities have been a major contribution to the international activities of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) of the International Council of Scientific Unions whose offices are in Paris. Conferences supported by SCOPE have produced more than a dozen volumes on major issues, and the United States committee has served as the point of launching for a score of research programs, international conferences, and reviews.

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The most important contribution, however, has been the fostering of science internationally. The international conferences supported by the committee through SCOPE have been designed to encourage all the nations in the world to have aspirations toward scholarship. The objective is the encouragement of inquiry and the development of knowledgeable groups of scientists around the world capable of adding to basic knowledge about the host of environmental problems that burden a small earth that carries 4.58 billion people and expects another 1.5 billion in less than 20 years.

Much more is known about these issues at present than is used by most governments; still more is to be learned and applied if we are to avoid gross errors over the next years. The International Environmental Programs Committee has been a small but important instrument for fostering this diffusion of knowledge and for strengthening the international scientific enterprise on environmental issues.

The committee controls little money but has carried considerable prestige and has been spectacularly effective in advancing its programs. Political or scientific hyperbole has no part in this exchange; it is an exchange between peers in science and in public affairs on some of the fundamental issues facing the world. The cost has been trifling in dollars; the yield potentially very large. The exchanges have been with China, India, Taiwan, South Africa, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and so on around the world. The exchanges have been repetitive, on different topics, growing in strength and quality, and clearly effective in opening further channels for discussion of the world's great issues.

The financing of this tiny effort has come principally through the National Science Foundation's Office of International Programs, an office that the new Reagan administration wishes to abolish. Funds for the committee have already been eliminated, its meetings stopped, its programs suspended. An important and successful effort in international diplomacy has been stopped -- and in favor of what?

The implication is clear from the daily headlines. The emphasis in internationalism will be on confrontation supported by military strength to the exclusion of scholarly exchange, strengthened channels of communication, or quiet reason based on shared experience, knowledge, and the possibility of building better understanding.

Nothing would seem more shortsighted or silly than to close off the inexpensive and clearly effective channels of communication in order to strengthen the possibilities for very expensive and questionably useful military confrontation. The money from these nominally domestic cuts in budgets is clearly to be transferred to the military. The handling of our relationships with El Salvador appear to be the model: doctrinaire, inflexible, dogmatic, and belligerent.

We have clearly made a bad bargain, one of many in a similar vein. Who gains? The new military industrial complex may gain in the short run. But the world loses its chance to address major issues of the environment in a systematically productive way, to talk over those issues, to argue through the relative merits of this and that interpretation, and to enable individual governments to strengthen their own scientific enterprise and to gain the largest amount of information possible before making the decisions that governments must make anyway.

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The interests of ignorance globally have been served powerfully by these steps. How long will we allow a new administration, which claims a mandate, to vandalize the progress made in recent years toward a reasoned approach to the growin g crises of the global environment?