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Foreign Science

Multiagency effort explores ways to improve science literacy among foreign service officers

August 2, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 31

Credit: Photo by Peter Cutts
State science and technology adviser Atkinson anticipates that foreign service officers will face ever more challenging science issues on the job.
Credit: Photo by Peter Cutts
State science and technology adviser Atkinson anticipates that foreign service officers will face ever more challenging science issues on the job.

Global epidemics, international pollution controls, visa delays for traveling scientists: These are just a few of the controversial science issues that U.S. diplomats face every day. What some officials fear is that too few of these diplomats understand the science they encounter or how to craft the most appropriate policies.

In response to such concerns, representatives from the Department of State, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), and several professional societies and universities met last month at the American Chemical Society (ACS) headquarters in Washington, D.C., to discuss how the scientific and educational communities could help improve science literacy among foreign service officers.

According to the State Department, the job of a foreign service officer is to "advocate American foreign policy, protect American citizens, and promote American business interests throughout the world." The job requires ongoing learning in subjects from languages to foreign policies to economics. Science often lands at the bottom of the list, if it is studied at all.

"Professional societies and schools of diplomacy have a terrific opportunity to work together and improve the science and technology knowledge base of foreign service officers," says Tamara J. Nameroff, director of the Office of International Activities at ACS. "These officers often are the first contact that foreign scientists and engineers have with our country, so in the long run we will be helping the U.S. government interact with the global scientific community."

IN TOTAL, 23 participants from ACS, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Society for Microbiology, the Materials Research Society, the National Academies of Science, Tufts University, Georgetown University, the State Department, and FSI met to discuss possible collaboration efforts.

George H. Atkinson, science and technology adviser to the secretary of state, was a moderator at the event and spoke afterward with C&EN about the workshop's missions and goals.

"Foreign service officers are extremely talented people," Atkinson tells C&EN. All newly hired foreign service officers must have at least an undergraduate education, he says, and then go through introductory courses at FSI. Once on the job, the officers rotate assignments every two to three years and so are constantly learning new topics from scratch.

The State Department established FSI in the 1950s to provide the highly specialized training that foreign service officers require. Currently, more than 10,000 students per year attend the institute at its 80-acre campus in Arlington, Va., or take part in its distance-learning program.

Lisa P. Fox, director of the Economic & Commercial Studies Division at FSI, says that some courses are mandatory for foreign service officers, most often in language training. Additional courses are assigned by State Department managers.

The type of training required, Fox says, will vary according to whether an officer is following one of five career tracks: public diplomacy or political, economic, management, or consular affairs. Economic affairs officers advise government decisionmakers on the business ramifications of issues such as climate change and genetically modified organisms, and so are the ones most likely to receive additional science and technology training.

According to Atkinson, foreign service officers' professional development should be structured to place an equal value on science as on more traditionally studied fields.

"There is a general understanding that science and technology are increasingly important in international affairs," Atkinson says. "The foreign service officers who represent the U.S. should therefore have an increasing knowledge of science." By participating in the workshop, Atkinson hopes to find ways to encourage foreign service officers to achieve this goal.

"The State Department has to put a premium on science," he says. "We have to say we respect it and expect it" as part of an officer's knowledge base. At the same time, Fox notes, the level of training has to correspond with the fact that foreign service officers are not expected to become science experts.

"The State Department is a flavor-of-the-week organization," Fox says. "We get involved in a particular science topic when there's a crisis or a big issue, but our needs change all the time."

Fox hopes to work with professional societies to develop better science curricula for the institute. She also notes that none of the faculty members at FSI have a scientific background, so the institute must contract out teachers for science courses. Professional societies, she says, are a potential resource for finding instructors.

Atkinson hopes that these societies can eventually help FSI establish a widely accessible source, such as a website, that could provide foreign service officers in the field with accurate and updated information on contemporary science issues.

In the interim, Fox plans to tap into existing databases of experts who can answer science questions on a moment's notice. She is also seeking advice from working scientists on appropriate reading materials that foreign service officers can access to stay abreast of the latest developments.

"We are trying to connect science with the political community," Atkinson says. "There are hundreds of thousands of members in professional societies who are on the very edge of their fields. They know the practicalities, opportunities, and vulnerabilities of those fields--so why don't we [at the State Department] ask them?"



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