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State Of Science Diplomacy

Science is becoming increasingly important in diplomatic efforts at the State Department

by Andrea Widener
May 13, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 19


A map of the world showing the 54 countries with which the U.S. has formal science outreach and technology agreements.
The U.S. currently has formal science and technology agreements with 54 countries and the European Commission.SOURCE: Department of State

Alice P. Gast isn’t a diplomat. But when the Department of State asked the president of Lehigh University to serve as a science envoy to Central Asia, she was eager to help.

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State Of Science Diplomacy

Gast, a chemical engineer, traveled with State Department representatives across the part of the former Soviet Union that bridges the Middle East and Asia. She talked with all types of people, from presidents to business leaders to student scientists.

Her work as a science envoy was “an opportunity to bring a private citizen—not a member of the diplomatic corps—in to talk to fellow scientific and government leaders in ways that were really beneficial,” says Gast, who has international interests and research connections dating back to when she was a postdoc in Paris in 1984 and 1985.

Credit: Department of State
Gast (right) has tea in Uzbekistan with local residents (center) during her trip to Central Asia as a science envoy.
Alice P. Gast (right), president of Lehigh University, has a meal with two Uzbeks and another person in an outdoor venue.
Credit: Department of State
Gast (right) has tea in Uzbekistan with local residents (center) during her trip to Central Asia as a science envoy.

Science envoys are high-profile scientists chosen by the State Department to make connections and identify opportunities for engagement in different regions. “I would hope that my report on the situation there will help point out how to build more U.S. bridges in that region,” Gast says.

The four-year-old science envoy program is just part of the increasing recognition at the State Department that science can play a valuable role in diplomacy.

Since a National Research Council (NRC) report 14 years ago criticized the department for its lack of science expertise, State has increased its efforts to understand and incorporate science into its diplomatic work. Further spurring this change was demand from countries that State works with as well as recognition by those inside the department of the scientific challenges that all nations face, from disease pandemics to water shortages.

“We are trying to use science as a tool to advance a more prosperous, secure, peaceful world,” says E. William Colglazier, science adviser to the secretary of state. “I’m really optimistic” that science can help.

Both supporters and critics say State could do better, but acknowledge that in the past decade the department’s scientific expertise has improved. However, State is fighting an uphill battle against those—including several prominent members of Congress—who would prefer that research done in the U.S. stay at home.

“Science is central to some of the major foreign policy challenges today, and the really remarkable thing has been the State Department’s recognition of that,” says Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The new secretary of state, John F. Kerry, recognizes the international importance of science and its value in addressing some of the world’s most entrenched challenges such as climate change.

Credit: Department of State
Young engineering students take a break during a team-building exercise at the 2012 Building Opportunity Out of Science & Technology (BOOST) program held in Monastir, Tunisia.
Young female engineering students take a break during a teambuilding exercise at the 2012 Building Opportunity Out of Science and Technology (BOOST) program held in Monastir, Tunisia.
Credit: Department of State
Young engineering students take a break during a team-building exercise at the 2012 Building Opportunity Out of Science & Technology (BOOST) program held in Monastir, Tunisia.

That wasn’t the case in 1999, when NRC released its report criticizing State’s knowledge of and expertise in science. In the wake of the Cold War, much of the science knowledge that State had built up—primarily surrounding nuclear weapons issues—began fading. The report called for the agency to make major changes to ensure that it was not isolated from important science developments affecting the world.

“An appreciation of how [science, technology, and health] factors are inextricably embedded in international relations is essential if the department is to effectively avail itself of the expertise of the U.S. [research] communities,” the report states. “More importantly, the department must be equipped to reach its own conclusions, particularly when conflicting technical views are expressed by vested interests outside the department.”

State did not implement all of the changes suggested in the report, but it has made major efforts to bring more science knowledge into the department. The highest-profile change was creating the position of science adviser to the secretary of state, whose office serves as the go-to location for those interested in science diplomacy, both inside and outside the department.

“I think the issues are still real, but a lot has changed,” says Norman P. Neureiter, a chemist who served as the first science adviser from 2000 to 2003 under both Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell.

In the everyday affairs of your average embassy or consulate, “science is usually not the dominant issue,” Neureiter says, and foreign service officers on the ground often lack scientific expertise. This becomes a problem when they need to make a policy recommendation on an issue but might not recognize that science could help them in the first place.

“A policy decision usually starts down low and has to come up through the chain,” Neureiter says. “It is too late if you are waiting to whisper in the secretary’s ear.”

Some offices within the State Department, like the Bureau of Oceans & Environmental Scientific Affairs (OES), had that expertise internally, but science wasn’t part of the larger foreign service culture. “The challenge was, how do we bring the scientific advice necessary for the conduct of foreign policy not just to oceans and environment issues but to the broad sweep of issues we have to deal with as a department?” explains Jonathan Margolis, acting deputy assistant secretary for OES.

In response, State has been increasing the number of scientists who come into the department on a temporary basis through fellowship programs and work at different parts of the agency. Science and technology policy fellows from AAAS form the largest block at State, but other fellowships also bring scientists into the department, including State’s own Jefferson Science Fellowships for midcareer scientists.

Shara Williams’ experience as a fellow gave her insight into how complicated international relations can be. “You get an understanding of all of the different issues that need to be weighed and the amount of effort that goes into a policy statement,” says Williams, who was an American Chemical Society policy fellow at State in 2004 and stayed on at State in 2005.

Even if a fellow’s training is in, say, chemistry or physics, “it could be surprising to find out that you really are the closest thing to a marine fisheries expert that is available,” says Williams, who is now at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. “What that background does is equip you to have a conversation with someone who knows the science.”

The transition from scientist to policy expert, even temporarily, isn’t always easy. Mark E. Eberhart, who came to State as a midcareer Jefferson Science Fellow in 2011–12 from the Colorado School of Mines, says he felt underutilized writing speeches and going to meetings.

“Meeting and talking with people is the number one priority” at State, he says. “The value system is quite different” from his research mentality as an academic chemist.

Eberhart is concerned that science advice isn’t reaching the highest levels—for example, the science adviser to the secretary of state actually reports to the undersecretary for economic growth, energy, and the environment. He thinks the State Department needs more of a scientific culture of research and analysis.

Although Ph.D. scientists are still in the vast minority at State, their numbers are increasing, Colglazier says. Many fellows end up staying on as staff in various offices. And now someone with a science background is part of each of the regional bureaus, he points out.

In addition, all foreign service members who serve as the environment, science, technology, and health officers for embassies get two weeks of training about science and how it fits into foreign policy issues. Perhaps most important, the training tells them whom to ask for help when faced with a science question.

Those changes are, at least in part, driven by demand from the countries State works with. More and more countries see science and innovation as a way to lift their developing economies and view access to the U.S. R&D infrastructure as a way to do that.

“In most countries in the world right now, the lightbulb has gone on: If they are going to advance, they are going to have to up their game in science and technology,” Colglazier explains. “The U.S. is still the leader, so they want to engage with us.”

That is shown by the increasing number of formal science and technology agreements between the U.S. and its partner nations, now up to 55. These agreements, overseen by the department’s Office of Science & Technology Cooperation, provide a formal connection between the countries on issues ranging from research projects of mutual interest to economic development opportunities.

In general, much of State’s science work, including the formal agreements and informal relationships, is with countries that are at a level of development to benefit from science exchanges, which Margolis estimates at 140–150 countries worldwide. Countries that are in crisis—where their people are struggling with war, food shortages, or other imminent disaster—often work through the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has also greatly expanded its science programs recently.

State has developed a number of programs to work with those 140–150 countries on ways to raise their level of scientific capability and scientific expertise. In recent years, several department programs have focused on science as a tool for economic development, like the Building Opportunity Out of Science & Technology program (see page 38).

These programs also give U.S. diplomats the chance to talk about issues that might be taboo otherwise. “If you look at the hallmarks of good science—peer review, meritocracy, transparency of operations, access to information, accountability—those just happen to reinforce good government concepts and democratic procedures,” Margolis says. “We can talk about scientific goals in a whole range of countries where there would be reticence to talk about democracy goals.”

For example, U.S. diplomats can talk about equal opportunities for women in science in countries where women haven’t traditionally been seen as equal, and the discussion can include the challenges female scientists in the U.S. continue to face. Or they can discuss how the U.S. government goes to its own scientists to get independent advice on the problems it faces.

“My view is it is in the U.S. interest to have all countries be more scientific in the way they think about things, which will hopefully lead to more rational policies,” Colglazier says.

State has also increasingly recognized that science can be a good tool to make connections with countries that it couldn’t have made otherwise, Margolis says.

During the Cold War, connections among U.S. and Russian scientists were one of the only ways that the countries interacted. And even now, scientists in the U.S. are connected to researchers in Iran, where the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations.

“Science opens doors for foreign policy objectives that aren’t necessarily shut, but you would have to use a crowbar to get them open,” Margolis says. “When you think about our relationship with Russia or China, where there are clearly many areas of friction, it is often in the science area where we can build bridges.”

But State should be doing more to reach out through science, says Nina Fedoroff, who served as science adviser to then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2010.

“Science diplomacy is best is when it goes both ways. It builds bonds that connect people across the vast chasms of religion and ethnic identity,” Fedoroff says. But State isn’t a part of that vigorous international science conversation, which is happening mostly through nonprofits and universities.

Being part of that conversation “is a powerful tool that [the nation has] yet to seize upon,” Fedoroff says.

Finding the right balance is a difficult challenge. Because it doesn’t fund research, State is never going to be a “science agency.” In fact, State doesn’t have a formal budget for science and doesn’t know how much it spends on science programs because they are integrated with other activities, officials acknowledge. They do say the funds spent on science represent only a small portion of the department’s $47.8 billion budget.

The department’s major role in science is as a convener, Margolis says. State officials identify major international issues and bring in researchers from inside and outside government to figure out the best way to tackle those problems

A few countries—Egypt, India, Israel, and Mexico, for example—have specific funds set up by Congress to promote cooperative science projects with the U.S. Officials at State point out that it would be useful to have money in its budget to support projects like this in other countries.


“The question is, how do you make the case to the American public, and specifically to Congress, that the reasons we need to engage in international science activities are not only foreign policy driven?” Margolis asks. Being intimately involved in science is important to the U.S. economy, too, he says.

Gast is continuing her work with Kazakhstan, but not with the support of State, which funded her for just one year. She has kept in touch with the ambassador to Kazakhstan, and she’s going back soon for a biking vacation around the country.

“I feel strongly that while I’m not an official science envoy anymore, to them I am their only science envoy,” she says.

Carrying the message of the increasing internationalization of science—and State’s need to play a role in it—is part of the challenge for the agency moving forward, Margolis says.

“The only way that the U.S. is going to stay in the forefront in science and technology is to work with the best, wherever they are in the world,” Colglazier says. “To do that you have to engage with them.”


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