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AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy Looks to Its Past and Future, a Decade On

A man at a podium and two women seated in leather chairs on a wood-paneled stage
Tom Wang, director of the Center for Science Diplomacy, introduces a session on policymaking in the Americas at Science Diplomacy 2018. | Melissa Day

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Center for Science Diplomacy is marking its 10th anniversary in 2018, looking back upon a founding that emerged amid a global recession and political tensions, concerns that AAAS recognized science and innovation could address.

Margaret Hamburg, AAAS president and foreign secretary of the National Academy of Medicine, told participants at the Center for Science Diplomacy’s fourth annual science diplomacy conference that new and ongoing challenges the world now faces call for the application of science diplomacy and make the center’s role more important than ever.

The event, Science Diplomacy 2018, held at AAAS headquarters on Sept. 14, brought together scientists, engineers, policymakers, educators and students in the field of science diplomacy for a full day of lectures, panel discussions, networking opportunities and a poster session.

“We find ourselves in this situation in this country and in many others as well, where there’s a growing trend toward nationalism, a call to strengthen borders, decrease collaboration with other nations and sadly break down some of the carefully developed partnerships, both formal and informal, that are trying to embrace vital realities of our increasingly globalized world and the benefits of working together, Hamburg said. In this environment, she added, “We’re witnessing a growing skepticism about science itself, a discounting of the role of science, a devaluation of scientific expertise and evidence in decision-making.”

Such doubts are worrisome, considering the importance of science – and the necessary role it continues to play in addressing global problems such as climate change, terrorism, and food and water scarcity, she said, adding that such threats know no borders.

The science diplomacy conference addressed such trends, presenting sessions on the utility of science diplomacy to address antimicrobial resistance, marine protected areas, and the nexus of migration and health, echoing the theme of that Hamburg choose for the upcoming 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting: “Science Transcending Boundaries.”

“If we really want to deal with global challenges on a global scale, we should be bringing the power of global science forward,” said Alan Leshner, who participated in the conference. Leshner served as AAAS’ chief executive officer between 2001 and 2015.

This philosophy of applying science globally informed the founding of the center under Leshner’s tenure in 2008. Although AAAS had been involved in science diplomacy for decades there was a sense amid the fiscal crisis and the Iraq War, that the United States was not making the best use of science to solve global problems, Leshner said.

Rush Holt, AAAS’ current CEO, also highlighted the importance of science informing global polices in his address before the conference. “In fact, we were among the first to put the two words together,” Holt said.

The center was formally announced in July 2008 during testimony Leshner delivered on international science cooperation before the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. “The Center is to be guided by the overarching goal of using science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding and prosperity,” Leshner testified at the time.

Three people gathered around a scientific poster
Events hosted by the Center for Science Diplomacy have offered a space for scientists and policymakers to share advances in science diplomacy. | Melissa Day

Since then, the center has established and fostered new areas of global collaboration, Leshner said during the conference, specifically citing efforts AAAS has forged with Cuba’s scientific community. In 2009, AAAS representatives were part of a delegation that traveled to Cuba to discuss potential collaborations between the two nations. AAAS and the center have continued to pursue additional joint efforts with the Cuban Academy of Sciences. One initiative, for instance, created an exchange program; the first fellowship brought a Cuban neuroscientist to a U.S. lab for six months.

The center has been at the forefront of science and diplomacy training and education efforts. It has organized series of science diplomacy courses in partnership with The World Academy of Sciences since 2014, led its own workshops in D.C., released an online course in science diplomacy, and launched the Science Diplomacy Education Network (SciDipEd). The center also has created venues for science diplomacy practitioners and researchers to explore the intersection of scientific disciplines and science diplomacy, through Science & Diplomacy, launched in 2012.

“Science diplomacy is moving in new directions beyond simply recognizing the existing connections between science and diplomacy,” said Tom Wang, director of the center and AAAS’ chief international officer. “Scientists and engineers, policy professionals and diplomats, especially those early in their careers, need new skills to make the most of the 21st century driven by science and technology and a dramatically interconnected world. New and important players in science diplomacy, from local and state governments to multinational research NGOs and corporations, need to be engaged and work effectively with the traditional players like foreign ministries.”

Added Hamburg, “There is a lot to celebrate. The Center for Science Diplomacy has been busy and has accomplished a lot. They’ve worked hard to build bridges among communities, societies and nations through closer interactions between science and diplomacy and to elevate the role in foreign policy to address national and global challenges.”

On the occasion of Science Diplomacy 2018, a memorandum of understanding was signed between AAAS and Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research to further their relationship in science diplomacy as well as science policy and communication related to global environmental change and its impacts on human well-being, one of several alliances AAAS has reached this year.

Amid such advances, Holt noted that there is still much work to do.

Science is not as prevalent as it should be at the highest levels in government, at international gatherings and in the work of nongovernmental organizations, Holt said. Science must be elevated, and the Center for Science Diplomacy must continue its work as “a catalyst, a convener, a teacher and instructor” in the realm of science diplomacy, he stressed.

 

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Andrea Korte