Skip to main content

Meet a Part of the AAAS Team Advancing Science Diplomacy

Jimmy Kolker and Mahlet Mesfin at the ASSAf-TWAS-AAAS Regional Workshop on Science Diplomacy held in South Africa in May 2018. 

Global problems like pollution, epidemics and climate change don’t care about borders. So scientists trying to tackle them have to reach across those borders, too.

The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy builds partnerships between researchers and diplomats in the United States and their counterparts abroad, even in countries where formal ties might be strained or limited. The Center publishes the quarterly journal Science & Diplomacy and supports capacity-building in science diplomacy overseas. And it’s now offering an online course on the topic for those interested in learning more. And these are just a fraction of the things that the Center does to advance and catalyze science diplomacy in the United States and around the world.

The now-10-year-old center is marking its anniversary with a series of events, including its annual conference, Science Diplomacy 2018, on September 14 at AAAS. Ahead of the event, MemberCentral talked with the three newest members of the team to get their thoughts on the questions facing the center and its mission: Mahlet Mesfin, formerly at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), now the center’s deputy director; Amy Shifflette, its editorial and communications manager; and Jimmy Kolker, a career diplomat and Health and Human Services assistant secretary for global affairs, now a visiting scholar at AAAS.

Q: Global issues, such as climate change, are scientific issues at heart. How does science diplomacy help tackle those questions?

Mesfin: Many of the issues that the world is facing are the same in the United States as they are in other parts of the world. Science is a language we all speak. Scientists here are grappling with the same challenges as their counterparts in other countries, so how do you build bridges, using our common language, to advance science and technology that can benefit the world, and vice versa? There are shared questions and challenges but also shared opportunities. Scientists and engineers must also work with the diplomatic communities to trust and partner with each other to truly tackle these global issues.

Q: You come out of a background in foreign service. How did you get involved in science and health issues?

Kolker: As a diplomat, and especially as an ambassador, we are called on to know a little bit about a lot of things. To respond quickly to breaking events, diplomats need and often have access to world-class experts. When you have the word ‘ambassador’ in front of your name, people tend to accept your phone calls and invitations to meet in person.

Amy Shifflette, editorial and communications manager for the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy

When the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was announced in 2003, the structure put ambassadors directly in charge of the choice of programs and partners in each country and also made them accountable for results. Uganda, where I served as United States Ambassador, was the biggest of the initial PEPFAR programs, and the spotlight was on us. The program changed a lot of lives, and mine was definitely one of them. I really saw the value — in the ambition of the program, of U.S. leadership, and the energy we got from government agencies working together and the opportunities that Uganda presented for PEPFAR. The program helped keep tens and ultimately hundreds of thousands of people alive. It was a great moment, and I happened to be in the chair when the music stopped, and that shaped the next 15 years of my career. Diplomatic skills can unquestionably advance global health goals.

Q: What do you enjoy about the job?

Shifflette: It’s an amazing opportunity to see scientists with a policy bent come together in a variety of ways. I think it’s good for AAAS members to know not just about our international work, but that international science cooperation in these tough political times is the way forward.

We’ve been doing science diplomacy in ways most Americans don’t even know about. For example, even though U.S. relations with Cuba have always been strained, AAAS has been working with Cuba for decades now, and AAAS has been maintaining these scientific contacts for decades. Cuba just developed a lung cancer vaccine, and now it’s being trialed in the U.S. There are so many stories like this of science diplomacy that the world, and certainly AAAS members, would be interested in ... Science diplomacy is everywhere, and I think people are catching onto that.

Q: You’ve been with AAAS for about a year now. What have been some of the bright spots?

Mesfin: It’s been an interesting time, in that some of the things that I considered to be long-established norms such as an understanding about the importance of science, its role in policy and society, and the value of international cooperation, are being re-evaluated. But what has been great to see is that many countries around the world, including the United States, still do see science diplomacy as a tool to build broader relationships. Even in this time when many things are changing, some things are still the same.

The Center for Science Diplomacy puts on trainings for scientists and policy professionals to understand how their work applies to global challenges and science diplomacy broadly. We’ve had a longstanding partnership with The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) where we do this training, mostly focused on participants in the global South. A few weeks ago, we were in South Africa for a workshop that expanded our partnership to regional workshops. It was an amazing, inspirational experience in terms of seeing the energy on the continent on this topic, and scientists there were so eager and interested in trying to make a difference in their governments and their institutions.

Q: How have you seen international scientific-diplomatic collaboration evolve during your career?

Kolker: PEPFAR is now used in the same sentences as the Marshall Plan as one of the things America stands for in the world, building capacity where it was needed and making a direct impact. Policymakers had to deal with scientific uncertainties and with insufficient data and evidence, but that dynamic between what we know about AIDS and what needed to be done quickly and at scale achieved a measurable result. There is a sense of global accountability — that the program justified the effort of all who saw it for the opportunity it was.

But there’s no shortage of health challenges that could benefit from better integration of science and diplomatic engagement. Certainly, the Ebola and Zika outbreaks demanded both a medical and a policy awareness. The U.S. response was primarily a domestic one, but the riskiest work needed to be carried out abroad. The intersection between what Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and USAID and our embassies did in the Ebola-affected countries or Zika-affected countries, and how that helped us prepare for and prevent major outbreaks in the United States, is not fully appreciated. Integrating what our government does with academic experts, UN agencies, non-government organizations and the private sector is still a work in progress.

Q: Officially, at least, the United States is pulling back from the world a bit. How does an organization like AAAS help bridge the gap between American scientists and the world?

Mesfin: From the U.S. government standpoint, some policies are changing, but the engagement of U.S. scientists and other countries is still strong, and in some cases stronger. I personally don’t feel like U.S. science per se is retreating from the world, because scientists at universities, in nonprofits and in industry — including AAAS members — are still continuing in their engagements. It’s obviously more challenging if some government policies such as those relating to immigration or visas are changed. But there’s still the same desire among the people doing the work to have it continue and grow, and the importance of this work extends beyond any changes in the government. I think AAAS has a unique role and position to play in facilitating and advancing the connections and in highlighting the potential of science diplomacy.

Q: What do you hope people get out of the September conference?

Shifflette: We want to take people who are talking about relevant issues in global health and diplomacy and all the normal sort of things, but we want it to be more interactive than your typical academic lectures. We want to take the best of the best and frame science diplomacy in ways that really get people talking. This is our 10-year anniversary, and we really want to have the speakers do something a bit different.




Matt Smith

Related Focus Areas