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Neuroscientist Ryan Guglietta Looks to the Stars, Future of Space Diplomacy


Ryan Guglietta
2018-2020 S&T Policy Fellow Ryan Guglietta.

Ryan Guglietta’s research has taken him from the nooks and crannies of the human brain to the vast emptiness of space, a realm that has admittedly little to do with his training as a neuroscientist but is the main focus of the Office of Space Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

As a Foreign Affairs Officer, Guglietta helps execute the office’s diplomatic and public diplomacy efforts, which aim to strengthen American leadership in space exploration, applications, and commercialization by increasing understanding of, and support for, U.S. national space policies and programs and to encourage foreign use of U.S. space capabilities, systems, and services. It is also one of the few scientific outfits that the outgoing Administration has favored.

“Space has been a priority in recent years, and you can really see that in the amount of attention and resources it’s getting. I think a lot of that is connected to the significant opportunities for commercial sector growth in this area,” says Guglietta. 

Three space policy directives (SPD) are the fulcrum on which Guglietta’s work rotates. SPD1 is focused on space exploration and returning humans to the moon, while SPD2 aims to streamline regulations governing the commercial use of space.

“Most of my work focuses on Space Policy Directive 3, which deals with the concept of space traffic management,” he says. “This directive aims to ensure the safety, stability, and sustainability of U.S. space operations, which largely amounts to making sure that the thousands of objects in orbit around the Earth don’t run into each other. Access to outer space is expanding rapidly, so it’s also important to have a coordinated international effort to address these issues and ensure all countries can enjoy the benefits of outer space.”

As a 2018-2020 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow (STPF), Guglietta is convinced that space exploration might be the answer to some of the existential threats the United States has faced in 2020.

“Earth-observing satellites are a critical component in tracking and characterizing climate change, whether it is measuring sea level heights, glacial coverage, or carbon dioxide levels,” he says. “Satellites are also used to study the migration of people and animals, which can yield valuable information on how zoonotic diseases (caused by germs that spread between animals and people) may arise. Experiments conducted on the International Space Station (ISS) in the absence of gravity can even provide useful insights on infectious disease back on Earth.”

In normal times, a Foreign Affairs Officer like Guglietta would have traveled overseas as part of the United States delegation that handles UN engagement on space issues. The COVID-19 pandemic upended such plans forcing Guglietta to work from his home in Washington, D.C. Still, diplomatic relationships continue, but largely online.

“We primarily engage with the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which meets three times a year in Vienna,” he says. “The committee has 95 member states from around the world and works on a number of important space-related issues. One recent success was the adoption of the 21 long-term sustainability guidelines. These guidelines were adopted by unanimous consent after nearly 10 years of diligent work and represent a cohesive international effort to promote the responsible and safe use of outer space.”

As a neuroscientist who primarily focused on researching the hippocampus and as an undergraduate psychology major, Guglietta’s background might have helped him cope with a culture of diplomacy that is rooted more in consensus than fact.

“It is very different when you are talking to a bunch of scientists versus a bunch of policymakers from around the world, I think both my training in the social sciences and neuroscience have been helpful in that regard,” he says. “Negotiating and finding a compromise is a difficult task, and having some training in psychology certainly doesn’t hurt, especially when you’re looking for the most effective way to convey your own viewpoint.”

Guglietta’s path into space policy was only possible after he graduated with his Ph.D. from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and applied for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF).

“During my AAAS STPF interviews, I just reached out to the director of the Space Affairs office and said “Hey, I know that my background isn’t in this, but space is something I have always been interested in, I would love to talk to you about it,” he says.

Shortly after, Guglietta met with the director and after a couple of interviews, he got the job. 

His resolve to change careers from neuroscience to science diplomacy has been driven in part by the broadening scope of what one can do with a Ph.D, and also the dwindling prospects in academia.

“There are a lot of Ph.D. graduates and not a lot of faculty jobs, so I think the stigma around finding a different career path has lessened a lot over the past decade,” he says.

For Guglietta, one thing is clear, “I find my work in policy and public service very fulfilling, and do not see myself going back to the research lab anytime soon,” he says. 

He is inspired by the shifting sphere of space exploration; how it not only addresses humanity’s most pressing needs but how space increasingly serves as a symbol for global cooperation.  

“Astronauts from different races, nationalities, and backgrounds work together on a floating metal tube (e.g. the International Space Station) 250 miles above the Earth, pursuing a common goal,” he says.