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Nina Fedoroff, Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State and to the Administrator of USAID, Urges Expanded Science Diplomacy
Nina V. Fedoroff
The United States has made important advances in using science cooperation to build improved bilateral relations, but government officials and American scientists need to do more to extend the reach of such diplomacy, said Nina V. Fedoroff, the science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.
In remarks to the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows in Washington, D.C., Fedoroff described the "spectacular" impact of a broad collaboration between scientists in the United States and Pakistan and a new engagement with Libya. But, she said, the State Department, Congress, and scientists themselves too often don't understand the potential of science diplomacy to support international security and economic growth.
"What I've realized is that, despite the fact that many cultures have lost respect for our politics and our culture, wherever I go, people are eager to interact with us on science," she said.
Fedoroff, a geneticist and molecular biologist, was appointed last year to a three-year term as science adviser at the State Department and as the scientific adviser to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She has previously served as a member of the AAAS Board of Directors and the National Science Board.
The AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships bring scientists and engineers to Washington, D.C., for a year-long assignment in congressional offices, the State Department, and other executive agencies. Now in its 35th year, the program enlisted a record 165 Fellows this fall, and they spent their first two weeks in an intensive orientation on global and domestic issues and the ways of Washington.
In her 9 September remarks at AAAS, Fedoroff cited the S&T Policy Fellowships for making an important contribution of scientific expertise to the U.S. policy-making process and to science diplomacy.
In much of the U.S. science and engineering community, interest in science diplomacy is enjoying a renaissance. The National Academies are building a promising relationship with scientists and engineers in Iran. The non-profit Civilian Research & Development Foundation has undertaken a range of science and technology missions involving the former states of the Soviet Union and other countries. AAAS, backed by a number of top science organizations, in July opened a new Center for Science Diplomacy.
But the nation's overall commitment to such global S&T engagement has waned in recent decades, Fedoroff said in her remarks. While science expertise in U.S. embassies is "very valuable," the lack of such expertise is emblematic of the decline.
"There was a time... when we had a number of science counselors serving in our embassies," she said. "We are now down to one, in India." Similarly, she added, the diplomatic mission is suffering a shortage of Foreign Service officers who hold briefs in environment, science, technology and health. "This is an area where our embassies are not terribly strong," she said.
But recent successes show the potential of government-backed science diplomacy. After more than 25 years of tension with Libya, she said, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the nation earlier this month with a pledge of expanded S&T collaboration and other bilateral cooperation.
And, she said, a relatively small USAID program with Pakistan has yielded a range of beneficial projects. Among them: Cell phones with internet capability are being distributed to health care workers in remote villages. Medical workers have joined in a tele-medicine collaboration that allows Pakistani doctors to hold long-distance consultations with colleagues by sending images of injuries and medical problems to hospitals in the United States. And engineers in California have worked with counterparts in Islamabad on how to employ the latest earthquake safety standards to reinforce existing buildings and to guide new construction.
According to Fedoroff, there's one area in which new science diplomacy efforts are critical: the food crisis in the developing world. "We can't solve the current food crisis with short-term measures," she said. "It is essential that we invest—re-invest—in the kind of capacity-building programs that we did 25 years ago."
But such programs, and the necessary funding, require the support of the State Department and Congress. And, Fedoroff said, lawmakers and policymakers often lack awareness of science. Since taking her State Department post last year, she has offered a series of 10-minute briefings for the secretary and undersecretaries at the State Department. Those raise awareness and create new discussions, she said.
"People, once they stop to listen, are fascinated by what they hear," she said. "It's really so much different from the types of things most of the State Department does."
Still, she said, bi-lateral science and technology engagement is "an enormously under-used tool in our diplomacy." She added: "Other countries are much better at it and I would like to see us improve.... But that's dependent on Congress, because Congress controls the funding.
"There is a real need for Congress to understand better what the ramifications of our policies are. That's work for all of us, all the time—talking to Congress about these things is something that all of us, as scientists, can and should be doing."
In response to questions, Fedoroff addressed a number of other issues. Among them:
Visa Policy— She concurred with the long-standing concerns expressed by many business, education, and science leaders who say U.S. visa policy is so restrictive that it deprives the nation of top-rate scholars and drives them to work in other nations. While some in Congress understand, and while some are "outraged," she said, "I'm not at all confident that people appreciate the consequences of our visa policy."
Genetically modified food— Though controversial, genetically modified food is important to addressing global food shortages, said Fedoroff, co-author of Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods. When crops are modified to resist insects and tolerate herbicides, she said, farmers can reduce their use of toxic chemicals and more often use no-till farming methods, which preserve topsoil.
While Europe and Japan have been averse to the use of such crops, the use is gaining momentum in Africa and India, she said. "We're hearing more voices saying, 'We need this technology—and we can't wait for Europe.'"
22 September 2008