The U.S. State Department is deeply committed to international science cooperation through negotiated agreements and less formal engagement to address top priority issues such as climate change and health, Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones told AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows.
Jones, who directs the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), said the bureau is working on multiple tracks to advance solutions on issues ranging from biodiversity and water to infectious diseases and mercury pollution. The issues all have a science component, and many have implications for national security and economic health, she said.
“If you think about it, science is important to each and every one of them,” Jones said. “It is something that cuts across everything we’re doing.”
But under President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Jones said, one issue is the clear top priority for her bureau: climate change.
With global climate talks slated for October in China, followed by a December meeting in Cancun, Mexico, that could yield new multilateral decisions to address climate change, “we are engaged in a full-court press on international negotiations,” Jones said. “In partnership with that, we have a collection of programs which are supporting mitigation and adaptation [and] looking at global energy development strategies.”
Jones spoke at AAAS on 13 September to more than 200 members of the 2010-11 class of S&T Policy Fellows and others. Now in their 38th year, the Fellowships have matched scientists and engineers with host offices in Washington, D.C., that are seeking scientific expertise. Fellows come from fields across the spectrum of science, engineering, and technology. Dozens of them have stayed on after their fellowships to build high-impact careers in the federal government, while others have risen to leadership positions in private enterprise, academia, and non-governmental organizations.
Jones was a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow in 1985, and in her talk, she shared with the Policy Fellows impressions and lessons derived from that experience and from her role in government in the years since.
She served as director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of International Science and Engineering from 2002-2005, and for two years before that as director for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) for the state of Maine. In addition, she has served as associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and in management and technical positions with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Institutes of Health.
Before moving into government, her research had focused on biophysics and biochemistry. [See her State Department biography.]
In opening remarks to the Fellows, Jones said Obama’s support for science and engineering since he took office 19 months ago has been “consistent and strong,” and despite budget challenges and the upcoming mid-term elections, “it hasn’t wavered.”
Clinton, she added, often talks about the close links between development and diplomacy.
Both Obama and Clinton have described their foreign policy as based on “three Ds”—defense, diplomacy, and development. Science, Jones said, makes important contributions to all three.
But the OES budget provides sharp insight into the administration’s specific priorities in science diplomacy. According to Jones, over half of the budget is devoted to climate change initiatives “where we can really begin to cut back on emissions and work on mitigation and adaptation.”
Jones said diplomatic negotiations are already underway in advance of the Cancun conference on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the conference’s preparatory talks next month in Tianjin, China. News reports have suggested that the meetings will focus on how developed nations will help developing nations deal with climate change.
At the same time, Jones said, OES has been working in the “Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate” that brings 17 industrialized nations together to address concerns about global climate change.
“We’re working regionally, we’re working bilaterally—we’re working on all levels,” she said.
In the current political climate, winning U.S. Senate approval of treaties or binding agreements is difficult, at best. The Obama administration last year endorsed global negotiations through the United Nations Environment Program to produce a new global treaty to control mercury pollution, but as Jones noted, the United States has been a notable holdout on treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
That requires the State Department to seek creative solutions that allow the United States to be involved in solving global challenges, Jones said.
For example, the United States is one of just two nations that is not a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity. But OES is among the nations exploring the possible value of a scientific organization—modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—to address issues related to biodiversity and ecosystem services.
“That’s a topic that cuts across both development and diplomacy,” she said.
Following climate change, Jones said, OES has four other top priorities:
- International science engagement. In 2009, just months after he took office, Obama won worldwide attention with a speech in Cairo that called on the United States to build a new relationship with the Muslim world. Now the State Department and other federal agencies are working to implement that effort, Jones said, by strengthening existing science and technology agreements and through the new science and technology envoys program. “We’re also looking for ways to connect with youth in science, connect our communities with Muslim communities and communities around the world,” she said.
- Global health. The H1N1 flu pandemic signaled the need for intensive international cooperation on health, Jones told the AAAS S&T Policy Fellows. “It’s a moral issue for the U.S.—it’s like development,” she explained. “But it’s also very important for our own security and stability.” Because the world’s population has grown so large and so mobile, diseases now spread more quickly than ever. As a result, she said, “we have to work to make sure that health systems around the world are capable of responding to emergencies and health issues.”
- Water. Globally, water is an issue with broad potential ramifications, Jones said. “It’s certainly a health issue, an issue of water-borne diseases and sanitation,” she said. “It certainly has an environmental dimension. And it’s also a security issue.” She cited Pakistan, Sudan, and even parts of Europe as places where water supplies are a problem underlying regional tensions. “River systems cross international boundaries and this causes stress for various countries,” she said.
- Polar regions. Both polar regions are changing, as a result of climate change and increasing human activities, particularly in the Arctic. The United States is working with other nations to create new international rules to manage these activities. The State Department also believes that the Convention on the Law of the Sea could play a crucial role in governing future claims on Arctic resources, transit, and other commerce, especially as sea ice there diminishes due to climate change. That is one reason why the Obama administration regards U.S. approval of the treaty “an important priority… for environmental, diplomatic, and commercial reasons,” Jones said.
Learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.
Learn more about the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.