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AAAS Workshop Teaches Science Diplomacy Through Relationship-Building

The Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop featured improvisation lessons, including an exercise which helped participants improve their communication skills by following their partner's visual cues. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

As nuclear scientists Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi began negotiating the technical details of a deal that significantly limited Iran’s nuclear activity while easing U.S. sanctions on the country in 2015, they knew that they shared a scientific and institutional background.

However, they may have forged a personal connection with help from baby clothes.

Moniz, then-U.S. Secretary of Energy and a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the MIT’s Energy Initiative, was aware that Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, had completed his Ph.D. at MIT with one of Moniz’ friends as his Ph.D. advisor. He also learned that Salehi had recently become a grandfather.

During their second meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, Moniz brought a onesie from MIT as a gift for Salehi’s granddaughter. There is both, a professional and a personal aspect: “Gestures like this can help build trust and establish a strong rapport between negotiators,” said Dennis Schroeder, a Visiting Scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Participants can connect not only on a scientific basis, but also on a personal level,” Schroeder said, during a presentation at the 2017 Science Diplomacy & Leadership workshop. “Successful negotiations may connect on a basis of shared history.”

Trust-building, effective communication and hands-on diplomatic experience were the focuses of the workshop, which was held at AAAS headquarters in Washington from Sept. 11-15. The immersive course sought to train the next generation of scientists seeking to address societal problems through international cooperation and policymakers looking to ground their work on scientific evidence.

Delivering remarks at the beginning of the workshop, AAAS Chief International Officer Tom Wang explained that promoting collaboration between scientists across borders has been a long-standing commitment of the organization.

“Organizations like AAAS have always sought to use the power of science and the natural connection between scientists to work with counterparts, no matter what the political obstacles have been,” Wang said.

Thirty-two scientists and international relations experts from around the world traveled to Washington to take part in the workshop, which was presented by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. Among them was Caitlin Quarrington, a Canadian science educator who saw the workshop as an opportunity to learn more about international relations and diplomacy.

Using agreements like the Iran nuclear deal as a case study of science diplomacy provided participants like Quarrington with a glimpse into a field in which they may want to become more involved.

“I would love to be a part of facilitating those connections,” said Quarrington.

Fellow participant Jacqueline Gamboa Varela, a DNA researcher and podcast host, sought to attend workshop because she wanted to learn more about ways in which she could apply her science degree outside of the laboratory. She became interested in science communication after her involvement with a documentary series that allowed her to travel around the United States, speaking with scientists.

“It really opened my eyes to seeing what else you can do with your STEM degree,” said Gamboa Varela.

For Gamboa Varela, the workshop presented an opportunity to learn about the integration of science and policymaking. The course featured lectures from science diplomats, a field visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and a hands-on simulation exercise that allowed participants to negotiate as government officials and representatives from various organizations.

Marga Gual Soler, senior project director with the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, started this workshop at Arizona State University in 2015. She said that, at the time, there were no courses teaching science diplomacy using experiential learning.

“I saw an opportunity to create a new training approach that included not just lectures but skills development such as communication, negotiation, and cross-cultural engagement, and a strong emphasis in networking and trust-building,” Gual Soler said.

AAAS has also been co-hosting science diplomacy workshops in Trieste, Italy since 2014, though this was the first to be presented at AAAS headquarters. Amy Shifflette, the Center for Science Diplomacy’s communications manager, said that AAAS’ proximity to embassies and federal agencies enhances the experience for participants.

“A lot of the most amazing connections we have are within a few blocks,” said Shifflette.

The workshop featured an improvisational theatre lesson, aimed at bringing scientists out of their shells and improving their communication skills through games and exercises.

For example, participants were each given a playing card which was adhered to their forehead, and indicated that they had a certain position within a power structure. They did not know their position in the hierarchy, but were tasked with determining their position based on how others were communicating with them. The exercise taught participants lessons about navigating power dynamics, from personal to geopolitical levels.

“Improv is about focusing our energy not on ourselves, but on the other person,” said improvisation teacher Boyd Branch, who led the lesson.

Later that day, participants put their improvisation skills to the test by taking part in a negotiation simulation exercise. The game was co-developed by Leah Stokes, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who joined the workshop to explain the rules to the participants.

In the Mercury Game, participants portrayed a group of representatives from countries, non-governmental organizations and inter-governmental organizations, gathering to discuss the potential of regulating mercury on an international scale. For many of the participants, the goal was to come to a legally binding agreement addressing the negative effects of mercury on humans and the environment.

The game is based on actual events and participants were provided with an international assessment on the effects of mercury on humans and the environment. Participants were given additional background information in advance, explaining cultural, economic and historical factors meant to inform their representation of their country or organization.

Stokes said that, while data and evidence are useful tools, the way in which participants communicate that information is crucial to effective negotiation.

“Science has to live in a person, someone has to embody it,” said Stokes. “Deals don’t live on paper.”

Moniz and Salehi established an understanding through their shared experience as scientists, despite tensions between the United States and Iran. By speaking the common language of science, Schroeder said, scientists can connect in a way that often benefits negotiations.

“Scientific and personal rapport play an important role in sustaining tense negotiations,” Schroeder said.

[Associated image: Stephen Waldron/AAAS]