Research and Foreign Policy Experts Visit AAAS to Explore the Future of Science Diplomacy

As the 20th century drew to a close, a consensus was emerging in some quarters of the U.S. research and diplomacy communities: Science and technology would be crucial to address the overarching global issues of the 21st century, from energy and food production to economic development, but the U.S. State Department was profoundly lacking in scientific and technological expertise.

Fast forward a dozen years into the new century, and the landscape is dramatically different. Starting in 2000 with the appointment of veteran scientist-diplomat Norman P. Neureiter, the post of science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State has become an institution, serving presidential administrations on important foreign policy issues. A corps of scientists and engineers have taken fellowships at State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and dozens have stayed on in permanent positions. And President Barack Obama has embraced a program proposed by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), appointing six widely respected researchers as science envoys.

E. William Colglazier

E. William Colglazier

Those advances, and Neureiter’s considerable contributions to the field, were assessed during a day-long roundtable convened recently by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. While the gathering of high-level science and foreign policy leaders found much to celebrate, they acknowledged that the gains could be put at risk by severe budget pressures and Washington’s political polarization. And, they said, the State Department and other nations’ foreign ministries must continue to expand their science capacity and expertise to support substantive, science-based relationships among nations.

“Science and technology are such strategic assets in terms of U.S. policy and diplomacy,” said E. William Colglazier, the science and technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The United States is perceived by the world as a leader in science and technology, and that means every country wants to engage with us on science and technology.”

Alice P. Gast

Alice P. Gast

“The whole world is looking to science and technology to improve its situation—to science and technology, and to education,” said Lehigh University President Alice P. Gast, the science envoy to the Central Asia and Caucasus region. “They greatly admire our system of science and technology and education. Scientists are welcomed with open arms around the world.”

Because so many global challenges have a science component, and because of the growing interest in international science cooperation, “science diplomacy is becoming a more integral part of foreign policy,” said Vaughan Turekian, the AAAS chief international officer and director of the Center for Science Diplomacy. “It has the potential to open new dimensions both in international relations and in research. And so it’s critical to identify mechanisms and approaches for increasing the capacity of foreign ministries to utilize science and scientists.”

The 25 January roundtable was convened at AAAS as a substantive way to celebrate Neureiter’s contributions to the field and to explore emerging issues and challenges. It was organized by Turekian and Tom Wang from the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, and it featured 32 participants from six countries, including high-ranking officials in the U.S. State Department and their counterparts from other nations. Among them were three of the first four science advisers to the Secretary of State: Neureiter; Colglazier, who served 17 years as executive officer of the National Academy of Sciences; and George H. Atkinson, an internationally known professor of chemistry and optical sciences at the University of Arizona and currently the director of the Institute on Science for Global Policy. (The third science adviser, AAAS Board of Directors Chair Nina V. Fedoroff, was in Saudi Arabia and unable to attend the event.)

They met under the Chatham House Rule, which encourages a frank exchange of ideas by assuring that participants will not be identified or quoted. What emerged from the day of discussion was a view that a new generation of science diplomacy is coming into maturity, with advocates at the highest levels of research, education, and government in many nations. But for the idea to develop and prosper, it will need resources, leadership, and engagement of a new generation.

The Necessity of Science in U.S. Diplomacy

Norman P. Neureiter

Norman P. Neureiter

Trained as a chemist, Neureiter in 1967 became the first American science attaché in Eastern Europe, based at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. In the early 1970s, while working in President Richard Nixon’s Office of Science and Technology, he helped craft science initiatives with China and the Soviet Union that brought a thaw to the Cold War. He joined AAAS in 2004, and today holds multiple posts: senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; acting director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy; and chairman of the senior advisory board to the new online publication Science & Diplomacy.

Neureiter’s appointment at the Department of State was, at the time, the culmination of an informal but long-running initiative by AAAS, the National Academies, and others to encourage development of science capacity in U.S. foreign policy.

Several speakers at the roundtable credited the late William T. Golden, a pivotal figure in U.S. science policy and at AAAS, with helping persuade policy leaders to bring science expertise into the U.S. foreign policy realm.

In 1998, the AAAS Council urged the State Department to take action. And in November that year, an article in the journal Science explored the theme, noting that “transformation” at State “can take place only with protracted commitment by top foreign policy leaders.”

The article’s conclusion was sobering: “Should the State Department fail to muster the requisite intellectual and organizational strength to influence and implement policy on S&T-infused international challenges, this primary foreign policy instrument will gradually lose its relevance to major U.S. interests around the world.”

In 1999, the National Research Council published “The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy”. The study, paid for by Golden from personal funds, detailed the role of science in a range of foreign policy issues, including innovation, energy, health, agriculture, and nuclear proliferation, among others. Based on its recommendations, Congress and President Bill Clinton created the position of science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State.

Less than 12 years have passed, but the landscape has indeed been transformed. Around the world, developing nations recognize the success of countries as diverse as China, India, Brazil, and Rwanda, and they, too, want science and technology to drive economic and human development. And even nations that have deeply strained relations with the United States recognize that its research enterprise, policymaking, and universities are models for an age of innovation. They want engagement. They want partnerships.

The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy was founded to serve as a hub for these disparate international interests, and its March 2012 launch of the online publication Science & Diplomacy is intended to build communities and further the intellectual development of the field.

“As we think of ways that countries might begin to interact with each other, science is an easy one,” Turekian told the roundtable. He described the exchanges that preceded a 2010 AAAS delegation visit to Myanmar, a nation that largely had been closed to the West for a generation. “It was quite clear,” he said, “that they wanted to work more with us.”

Shaping a Role for Science at State

In remarks at the roundtable, Neureiter described his early challenges in establishing a strong role for science, and the science adviser, in the culture of diplomats, first under Secretary Madeleine Albright and then under Secretary Colin Powell. There were small successes, and occasionally large ones, born of patient and steady in-house work that established the S&T adviser as a trusted resource for the secretary.

At the same time, Neureiter said, a crucial goal in those early days was to assure that the science community knew of the adviser’s office and knew that they could contact the State Department regarding important S&T issues.

“It could so easily have been a one-off job,” he said of his three-year term in the post. But as his term came to an end, a colleague congratulated him: “The important thing that you accomplished was that you had a successor.”

The successor—George H. Atkinson—explained at the roundtable that institutionalizing the role of science in the State Department has required an ongoing effort to win awareness and support among assistant secretaries, ambassadors, and regional bureaus.

Foreign embassies and diplomatic offices have watched the evolution closely. Nations such as the U.K. and Germany have made significant efforts to have science and technology staff at their embassies, and nations as diverse as China and Turkey are building overseas relationships based, in part, on science agreements and joint research efforts. But many nations—even those with strong research sectors—have not made that investment, and they are looking to the United States to lead a sustainable trend.

George H. Atkinson

George H. Atkinson

For Neureiter, Atkinson, and their successors, perhaps the most quantifiable success has been in adding science expertise to the ranks of State Department professionals—especially through fellowships. When Neureiter began his term as S&T adviser in 2000, there were only a few AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows at the State Department; this year there are 41, and 43 more at the USAID. The Jefferson Science Fellowships, initiated by Atkinson and supported by the Carnegie Corp. and the MacArthur Foundation together with almost 100 U.S. universities and colleges, now has 13 tenured faculty from U.S. colleges and universities assigned to State and USAID.

Over 120 former AAAS Fellows now work at State and USAID. Three high-profile examples: Colglazier was a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, as was Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones, who directs the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and Alex Dehgan, who currently serves as S&T adviser to USAID Administrator Raj Shah.

Taken together, these appointments and initiatives, sustained over time, have put science and engineering into the DNA of U.S. foreign relations agencies.

Toward a Sustainable Science Diplomacy

With broad support at the State Department and USAID, and from both established science powers and emerging nations overseas, science diplomacy may be entering a new, global era of influence and impact. But a number of speakers at the roundtable stressed that challenges lie ahead.

While scientists embrace their non-partisan status, an enduring budget crisis and Washington’s polarized political climate can make science—and science diplomacy—a target. And, some said, it will be important for scientists and diplomats to develop projects and programs that that will allow countries to move past get-acquainted visits and build substantive bilateral and multi-lateral partnerships. At the same time, some said, they have to be realistic: Budget stresses could make funding scarce for such projects, and they must take care to not promise more than they can deliver.

And yet speakers identified some clear strategies for increasing science capacity in foreign relations and making it more sustainable.

Turekian and others suggested that the U.S. science envoy program initiated by the Obama administration could be used more ambitiously to build relationships overseas, especially with nations where government-to-government relations are deeply strained. Others recommended developing networks within diaspora communities and working with them to build relationships with foreign nations.

Others said that scientists who travel routinely to meet or work with partners overseas could be an invaluable resource. Today, such scientists travel to virtually every nation on earth, including such flashpoints as Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, and Palestinian communities. And yet, despite their knowledge, they are rarely asked by educational or governmental agencies to do outreach work that could build familiarity and understanding.

Similarly, U.S. agencies make significant investments in research with foreign partners—and those overseas researchers could help to build bridges to government agencies or the public in their home nations.

Throughout the day-long discussion, another goal emerged repeatedly in discussions: the need to engage younger people in science diplomacy.

One participant described a “demographic tsunami” of younger people, and said that networks among a new generation of scientists and diplomats could have a crucial value in shaping international relations in a rapidly changing world.

Young people starting careers today at State or in the Foreign Service come in with more basic knowledge of science than did their predecessors a generation or two earlier, speakers said, and young scientists tend to have more global awareness.

There are models for effective programs: Last year, for example, the National Academies introduced the Arab-American Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine program. In October, the program brought together outstanding young scientists, engineers, and medical professionals from the United States and the 18 countries of the Arab League for a three-day symposium in Kuwait.

In closing the discussion, Turekian suggested that foresight and creative planning today will pave the way for successes in the future.

“There are going to be opportunities where countries that haven’t had the best relationships with the United States or other countries are going to be probing for ways to do things,” he said. “And science, I believe, will continue to be one of the ways that both sides will want to pursue that. But we’ll have to think about building the capacity of our institutions—non-governmental science organizations and, critically, our governmental organizations and foreign ministries.”

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

View the Center’s new online publication, Science & Diplomacy.

Read Vaughan C. Turekian’s recent talk to the Humboldt Kolleg, “Science, Diplomacy and International Affairs in the 21st Century.”