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[Matthew Shapiro] Dust in the wind, solutions in the lab

Spring is coming, but people living in Northeast Asia are encountering blooming respiratory illnesses as well as the cherry blossoms. Trade winds carry the fine yellow dust of the Mongolian deserts eastward to China, the Korean Peninsula, Japan and, in much smaller amounts, the West Coast of the United States. It is an event that is particularly severe in the March-April months, accompanied by images of Asians wearing surgical masks, scarves and even respirators while going about their daily activities.

The annual blowing of the dust is natural. The massive amounts of industrial pollution that attach to the dust are not. If the dust is less than 2.5 micrometers in size -- less than the width of a strand of hair -- it enters our bloodstream directly after inhalation. On particularly bad days, residents of Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and all areas in between limit their outdoor activities, schools keep students indoors and all windows are closed airtight.

Rather than point their fingers at China, leaders across Northeast Asia now believe that China should not have to clean up the yellow dust by itself. Sure, the Chinese turn on the power switches for their factories and coal-fired power plants, but much of what they manufacture is exported. And many of the factories are owned and operated by Americans, Europeans, South Koreans and Japanese, as foreigners set up shop in China to reap the benefits of lower labor costs and looser environmental standards.

In 2001, the environmental ministers of China, South Korea and Japan first agreed to prioritize the yellow dust problem, establishing a diplomatic channel for dealing with it. But regular discussions since then have done little more than keep the problem on the regional policy agenda. There is another option.

My analysis of scientific journal publications shows that scientists from Northeast Asia have been researching the dust problem with fervor. In the last few years, growth in the number of articles published on the subject has been exponential. By the end of this year, there will have been at least 600 scientific articles published on the subject. This dramatic shift in attention is evidence of a scientific consensus about the dust’s public health and safety consequences.

More remarkably, and coinciding with the increase in articles on the dust problem, there is now a robust network of scientists in Northeast Asia. There are plenty of reasons to avoid research collaborations: research is expensive and risky and collaborators may free ride. Despite all this, the presence of a regional science network confirms that the governments of China, South Korea and Japan have been promoting transnational research without relying on formal diplomatic channels. Public funding for research and collaborations among countries continues to increase.

What does this mean? First, national science funding directives must be recognized and weighed by diplomats, the media and the public when trying to understand why nations behave the way they do. We often frame national prestige and success by security and trade negotiations, but geopolitically positive outcomes are also a function of a nation’s science infrastructure. My own research has shown that transnational science collaborations boost economic growth.

Second, science can be a vehicle to depoliticize international relations and thus an easier way to achieve cross-border environmental goals. In Northeast Asia, it has taken only 10 years to foster cooperation about the yellow dust problem. This stands in stark contrast to never-ending security and territorial disputes. Essentially, the northeast Asian powers have approached transboundary water pollution, acid rain and pollution-reducing technologies with unmatched efficacy.

Finally, elected officials may not always understand the science, but they will likely reject it outright if their political interests are threatened. If this results in compelling criticism of scientific findings, everything could be derailed: lost public support, decreased public funding and a return to more polluted air and water. At that point, scientists themselves would have to reluctantly enter the political arena to defend their methods and conclusions.

The Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting will be held at the end of this month in Shizuoka, Japan to reestablish the united environmental targets of China, South Korea and Japan. I recommend that they bring their science attaches to the meeting. After all, the real evidence of successful tripartite environmentalism thus far -- at least with regard to the yellow dust problem -- has been the dramatic increases in transnational science collaborations.

By Matthew Shapiro

Matthew A. Shapiro is an associate professor of political science at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a USC & CSIS U.S.-Korea NextGen Scholar. His research interests include national innovation systems with special focus on Northeast Asia, environmental and energy policies and politics of science and technology. –Ed.