Nina Fedoroff: Scientists Needed for Short Tours of Diplomatic Duty

Scientists have a key role to play in the U.S. effort to strengthen its international ties, by working with their international colleagues on specific projects that address common problems such as climate change and health care, said Nina Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.

There are increasing opportunities for scientists to share their expertise in public and private collaborations, but they are most effective as diplomats when they remain immersed in their research careers, she advised in a talk at the 2009 AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy.

Fedoroff was one of several top-level governmental, non-governmental and academic officials attending the Leadership Seminar, a weeklong “crash course” in science and technology policy modeled on the annual orientation program provided for AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. The Fellowships, now in their 35th year, educate scientists on the intricacies of federal policymaking while providing scientific expertise and analysis to the U.S. Congress and Executive Branch offices.


Nina Fedoroff

“The Leadership Seminar is our answer to the many people over the years who’ve asked to be included in the Policy Fellows’ orientation,” said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS and co-organizer, together with Deputy Director Stephen Nelson, of the seminar. “For the participants it’s a unique opportunity to get an insider’s view of S&T policymaking in Washington in one intensive week.”

Fedoroff began her 20 November speech with a short history of the role of science at the State Department. Although its roots lie in the Cold War, she said, science diplomacy “is increasingly moving away from its early focus on weapons scientists, and moving toward developing partnerships and collaborations among and between scientists” internationally.

Fedoroff cited several specific examples from the work of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows and the National Academies’ Jefferson Science Fellows as examples of powerful collaboration projects.

  • Alexander Dehgan, AAAS Diplomacy Fellow (2003-2005), helped develop a virtual library for Iraqi S&T researchers, worked to rebuild Iraq’s renowned natural history museum, and led an effort to redirect Iraqi weapons scientists into civilian work.
  • Jason Rao, AAAS Diplomacy Fellow (2002-2003), helped turn former anthrax factories in Russia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan into new facilities for vaccine production and disease surveillance in those countries. He now works on research collaborations with scientists in Pakistan.
  • Jefferson Fellows (2008-2009) Steven Garrett and Phil Hopke have organized international teams of researchers to develop cookstove technologies that reduce soot and the “energy poverty” of rural families in developing nations.
  • Jefferson Fellow Tim DeVoogd (2008-2009) worked to improve S&T ties between the U.S. and Latin America, including developing a Western Hemisphere Internet portal to improve research communication and share news about equipment and events.

Promoting such collaboration is her “top job,” Fedoroff said in response to a question after the speech. “My legacy would be, simply, to see more science used between countries, more scientists in embassies, and more business connections, especially between young entrepreneurs.”

Funding for these projects can be sparse and subject to quick change, she warned. But last year’s memorandum of understanding between the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development, where Fedoroff also serves as science and technology adviser, is a step toward supporting international S&T research and education collaborations, she said.

Ultimately, she noted, “we want to create a single mechanism that connects funding agencies in countries so that investigators in each country, particularly across disciplines, can go to it and apply for grant funds.”

Fedoroff said that President Obama’s 4 June speech in Cairo laying out a plan for scientific outreach collaboration with the Muslim world, including the use of science envoys, signals new opportunities at the intersection of science and statecraft.

“Even where our culture is not particularly respected, our science is,” she said. “I would love to see this component of public diplomacy increase.”