Three years ago, Melania Guerra spent July Fourth not at a sun-drenched backyard barbecue, but atop the icy waters bordering the Arctic Ocean. As an oceanographer pursuing postdoctoral research, Guerra was studying underwater acoustics off the coast of Alaska.
The instruments she and her team had deployed the previous year had documented the effect of manmade noise pollution on bowhead and beluga whales, bearded seals and other animals that rely on echolocation to communicate, navigate and forage.
Unfortunately, Guerra had to leave one of her sensors behind. Its location in Russian waters on the western side of the Bering Strait was inaccessible to the University of Washington researchers. “The politics were affecting the science that we were supposed to be doing that year,” said Guerra. “That was the day that I said, ‘I think my cycle in science is done. I think I have to start looking for something else.’”
After a childhood spent attending a German school in her native Costa Rica and 12 years of studying and working in the U.S., Guerra felt she had a unique intercultural and linguistic skillset that she was not putting to use. Feeling a calling to pursue a career in science diplomacy, she found mentors: Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Román Macaya, who was then Costa Rica’s ambassador to the U.S. It was Macaya who pointed Guerra toward AAAS, and in September 2017, she participated in the intensive, week-long Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Last month, AAAS welcomed 28 graduate students, STEM and international relations faculty, and non-profit professionals, representing 15 countries, to the second annual SDL. Though the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy has been holding science diplomacy courses in partnership with The World Academy of Sciences since 2014, the SDL seminar is more narrowly focused: It aims to introduce participants to the science diplomacy ecosystem of the U.S., and of D.C. in particular.
“Over the past several years, we have seen an increase in the demand from students and professionals to understand how their technical backgrounds, skillsets, and expertise can be applied to issues at the intersection of science and international relations and diplomacy,” said Mahlet Mesfin, deputy director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. “Using the knowledge we have at the Center and within our networks, this workshop is designed to help expose participants to a wide range of issues and common themes in science diplomacy and the need for scientists and diplomats to work together to address national and global challenges.”
The seminar combines academic lectures, professional development training and leadership exercises to create an immersive experience for the next generation of science-minded diplomats. Additionally, this year’s field visits to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Embassy of France gave attendees valued networking opportunities.
“A friend just asked me how #SDL2018 is going, and I honestly can’t find the words to describe how amazing it is,” one participant wrote on Twitter. “My mind has expanded, the group has bonded, I’ve felt out of my comfort zone and completely in my element. So happy and lucky I was able to come.”
The workshop’s academic sessions were anchored by a group of particularly trailblazing professionals, as science diplomacy did not come into its own as a formalized discipline until relatively recently. After graduating from Harvard with a doctorate in biochemistry and chemical physics and serving as the first science and technology adviser to the World Bank, Charles Weiss founded the science, technology and international affairs (STIA) major within Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (SFS). “Up until this year, STIA majors were the only SFS undergrads who had to take science,” Weiss said during a panel discussion on the future for young science diplomats. “The department used to be called ‘Safe from Science.’”
Over the past 21 years, Georgetown STIA majors have learned about the nuances of communication and philosophy that are crucial in science-related diplomacy. In his talk, Weiss highlighted the difficulty of regulating international entities, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“This informal group of volunteers has a terribly important advisory function,” Weiss said. “And it gradually realized that it has to put in the same kinds of safeguards against abuse, sexual harassment and conflict of interest that the National Academy has put into place, with some effort and some pain.”
On the panel with Weiss was Melania Guerra, telling her story and giving participants an SDL alumna’s perspective. After completing the workshop last fall, Guerra contributed to the Costa Rican delegation at the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. Now, as a fellow with the UN’s Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, she is carrying out six months of research and study at The University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy.
And Guerra is not the only participant who has built an impressive career trajectory in the brief 10 months since last year’s science diplomacy training session. One alumna has taken on a leadership role in the National Science Policy Network, while another is serving as a AAAS science and technology policy fellow. Two other alumni helped the Panamanian government develop a science diplomacy strategy.
“One of the key innovations of the SDL Workshop is the emphasis not just on the theory and practice of science diplomacy, but on leadership development to build critical skills that are typically missing from STEM education,” said Marga Gual Soler, a senior project director at the Center for Science Diplomacy. “More and more early career scientists around the world are excited to contribute to science diplomacy, but they also need policy understanding, negotiation skills, cross-cultural awareness and a strong network. … We’re pleased to see our alumni already making an impact in their countries and organizations.”
[Associated image: Neil Orman/AAAS]