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Fedoroff: A Call For Science Diplomats
The world needs more science diplomats who can lend their expertise and passion to solving global problems of environmental degradation and poverty in developing nations, said Nina Fedoroff in her AAAS plenary address on 16 February 2008.
Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State and adviser to the Administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said scientists are already roused to work on these problems, but may be paralyzed by the thought that they have nothing to contribute. (See a video of the plenary address.)
The AAAS Annual Meeting plenary talks on the challenges of globalization can "stir the imagination and the indignation and the desire to do something, but for most of us, the impulse passes," she noted.
Fedoroff wants the impulse to linger, and she discussed a number of examples of the work that scientists can do to bridge the digital divide in information technology in poor communities, foster a new green revolution in architecture for the world's hungry, and restore peaceful research activities in regions recovering from war.
She praised a speech given by Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates at the Davos World Economic Forum earlier this year, where Gates said market forces and traditional philanthropy are not enough to help the world's poorest citizens. Instead, he said, the most promising projects combine the expertise of those who know the needs of the developing world with scientists who understand the breakthroughs that can help.
"But the idea of serving as science diplomat is only beginning to get on the radar screen of the average scientist or engineer," Fedoroff said.
She pointed to two examples of scientists who have made the transition to diplomatic service, both of them recent AAAS Diplomacy Fellows. Jason Rao, a molecular biologist from Johns Hopkins University, is a member of the U.S. State Department's Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction. Over the past three years, he has helped turn former anthrax factories in Russia, Georgia and Kazakhstan into new facilities for vaccine production and disease surveillance in those countries.
Diplomacy Fellow Alexander Dehgan put his law degree and Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Chicago to work in Iraq soon after joining the State Department, redirecting that country's weapons scientists into civilian research.
Dehgan also helped build a natural history museum -- "dodging bombs and attacks in and out of the Green Zone" in Baghdad, Fedoroff said -- and created an Internet portal to give Iraqi researchers full access to scientific literature after many library collections were destroyed in the war.
The State Department's Jefferson Science Fellows program, now in its fifth year, is also attracting a group of more established researchers, Fedoroff said. She thinks scientists are drawn to the program in part because they are seeing the connections between "the rising tide of resentment" against the United States and global disparities in wealth.
"But our science and technology are eagerly sought after, even by countries that have lost respect for our culture and our politics," she added.
A pioneering researcher in plant and evolutionary biology, Fedoroff divides her time between diplomatic duties and her role as head of The Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State. She was introduced at the plenary session by Norman Neureiter, director of AAAS's Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and the first S&T adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.
17 February 2008