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AAAS Opens New Center for Science Diplomacy to "Promote International Understanding and Prosperity"

In the 1960s and '70s, during the most difficult years of the Cold War, U.S. scientists and engineers continued to work with colleagues in the Soviet Union, helping both countries maintain lines of communication and a baseline of trust. Today's conflicts are different, but with U.S. S&T organizations again seeing promise in such outreach, AAAS has opened a new Center for Science Diplomacy.

The center, working with both the science and foreign policy communities, will focus on communicating the value of science diplomacy and on identifying collaborative projects that could help strengthen civil society relationships between nations, especially when official relations do not exist or are extremely strained.

"The center is to be guided by the over-arching goal of using science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding and prosperity," AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner said in recent congressional testimony. "AAAS believes this use of scientific collaboration and communication is essential both to the advancement of science and its use for the benefit of our global society."


Vaughan Turekian

Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer, said the center will be geared for issues different from those that pre-occupied U.S. and Soviet chemists and physicists in an era past–climate change, energy, sustainability, innovation and health issues, for example.

"The scope of countries and the scope of topics are much more broad than it was 40 years ago," he said. "None of this is a panacea. But it contributes to the long and methodical building of relationships, even when there are bumps in the road over the short term."

Turekian will serve as director of the Center for Science Diplomacy. Norman P. Neureiter, who heads the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, will serve as senior adviser. Key roles also will be played by Joanne Padrón Carney, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress; Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships; and Tom Wang, AAAS director for international cooperation.


Norman P. Neureiter

Neureiter is a veteran diplomat who became a firm believer in the value of bi-lateral science engagement during the Cold War. He trained as a research chemist; in the 1960s, he became the first U.S. science attaché in Eastern Europe. Later he served in President Richard Nixon's Office of Science and Technology, helping craft scientific elements of historic agreements with the Soviet Union and China. He served as the first science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State from 2000 to 2003.

"From my own experience in Poland and with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and in the early days of interaction with China as America moved to bridge 25 years of complete separation, the relationships that were developed between scientists made real contributions toward creating the very different world we live in today," Neureiter said. "Today the challenges are different, the threats are different, but the potential of science to address these problems is as powerful now as it was then. The potential for this new center is immense."

The center is opening at a time when the United States faces substantial challenges in its relations with other nations. Government-to-government efforts to resolve profound disagreements with North Korea, Iran and Middle Eastern countries have met with uneven results.

At the same time, public attitudes toward the United States currently appear to be at a nadir in many countries. For example, a 2004 survey of six Arab nations conducted by Zogby International for the Arab American Institute found overwhelming public hostility to U.S. policy on Iraq, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, and the Middle East in general.

But when asked their opinion of U.S. science and technology, the responses shifted dramatically. In Morocco, 90% of respondents had a favorable view; a favorable view was held by 84% of respondents in the United Arab Emirates and 83% in Jordan. And in several of the countries, opinions among respondents under 30 years old were even more positive.

To many science and foreign policy leaders, that suggests that the time is opportune for an ambitious new science diplomacy effort. The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy is an outgrowth of that belief.

While diplomatic conflicts generate headlines, science and engineering organizations in recent years have initiated their own diplomatic missions, usually without fanfare. The National Academies brought a high-level delegation to Iran last fall. The non-profit Civilian Research & Development Foundation (CRDF) has undertaken a range of science and technology missions involving the former states of the Soviet Union and other countries. The Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston and the libraries at Harvard University and the University of California at Los Angeles have worked to train Iraqi librarians and library science educators.

AAAS, meanwhile, has begun building relationships with Rwanda, Vietnam, China, and other nations based on capacity-building, research and development, and science education, among other interests. In early 2007, AAAS helped organize a landmark meeting in Kuwait that brought 200 women scientists and engineers from the Arab world together with about two dozen women holding leadership positions in U.S. science, business, education, government, and other fields.

That meeting was co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department—and Turekian and others have seen increasing signals that the American government may be recognizing the value of science diplomacy.

That interest was evident again on 15 July, when the U.S. House of Representatives Research and Science Education subcommittee, led by U.S. Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), held a hearing to examine the role of U.S. non-governmental organizations and universities in fostering international science and technology cooperation.

"These organizations represent the best of U.S. science and higher education," said Baird, the subcommittee chairman. "And they have the flexibility, the connections and the know-how to engage scientists and pursue good science even in countries where government-to-government relationships are tense or limited and in countries with limited S&T capacity of their own."

Baird welcomed news of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, and said: "I can't think of a better organization to do that... and any way we can assist in that, we'll be happy to."

There is increasing "recognition that a lot of the issues we face today globally—the issues we face and that the next administration will face—have science and technology components," said Cathleen A. Campbell, CRDF's president and CEO. But potential solutions require the engagement of many nations, Campbell added, because "no one country has all the answers."

Science diplomacy "may be, if not the strongest, one of the strongest arrows in our foreign policy quiver right now," said Maxmillian Angerholzer III, executive director and secretary of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, a philanthropic institution in Washington, D.C. that counts science diplomacy a key part of its mission. "The State Department, Congress, the White House—they're starting to come around on this.... I think the timing of what Alan Leshner and Vaughan Turekian have done in setting up this center couldn't be better."

Angerholzer was among the National Academies delegation that visited with top political and S&T leaders in Iran last fall, and he came away deeply impressed by the positive reception given to the U.S. group. Neureiter also was in that delegation, and he, too, said the trip underscored the importance and potential of science diplomacy.

In the weeks and months ahead, Turekian said, the center will work with its partners to provide information to public officials on the value of science diplomacy, and to bring the S&T and foreign policy communities together for discussion and collaboration. And it will continue efforts by AAAS and others to build science-based relationships with countries around the world.

A key to success, he said, will be the spirit of the engagement. Science diplomacy is not an aid program, and there is no quid pro quo. Rather, it is a way to improve global science and build capacity—and a way to build understanding and trust.

Countries may see engagement as a way to build S&T capacity, Turekian said, and they may want to improve their access to U.S. universities and expertise. But the exchange is relatively balanced, and not one-sided.

"At the heart, this is a matter of respect," he said. "It's a very powerful tool in diplomacy. We're not talking down to you. We're saying: 'You regard this is important, and we regard this as important, so let's find ways that we can engage.' And in doing that, we can try to build a reputation that the United States is a good country to engage with."