Lassina Zerbo Wins 2018 AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy

As part of his work to end nuclear testing, Lassina Zerbo has encouraged young people to get involved, establishing a youth group that aims to promote the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty through social media and other channels. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Lassina Zerbo, in using his scientific expertise and leadership ability to tackle difficult challenges and promote world peace, has been chosen by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to receive its 2018 Award for Science Diplomacy.

Zerbo has been the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization’s since 2013, where he spearheads efforts to strengthen the CTBTO as a global center of excellence for nuclear test-ban verification. Previously, he served as director of the CTBTO’s International Data Center Division. Zerbo has also led the organization in working toward universalization of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, a legally binding global ban on nuclear explosive testing. AAAS noted that Zerbo receiving the award highlights the continued importance of science diplomacy leadership on the issue of nuclear testing, as well as Zerbo’s substantial contributions to these efforts.

“Dr. Zerbo has repeatedly demonstrated his profound skill at promoting dialogue and interaction among scientists, policymakers, academics and civil society, and encouraging diverse groups to work collaboratively,” AAAS noted in award documentation.

Zerbo negotiated agreements to share data after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan. When nuclear tests were conducted by North Korea in 2016 and 2017, Zerbo oversaw a response that included providing data and analysis to CTBTO member states as the events unfolded. Zerbo also spearheaded efforts to make the monitoring data more accessible for scientific purposes.  A citizen of Burkina Faso, Zerbo has also served in technical adviser roles in the African geophysics community.

He has also worked to encourage young people to use science to improve the world around them. He established the CTBTO Youth Group, which aims to help young people contribute to global peace and security by promoting the CTBT through social media and other channels.

Zerbo was nominated for the 2018 AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy by Pierce Corden, a former AAAS visiting scholar and current adjunct lecturer at American University’s School of International Service. In his nomination letter, Corden wrote that Zerbo responded to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia by making diplomatic arrangements to ensure that seismic data could be provided swiftly to tsunami warning networks. These efforts were taken with the goal of improving early warnings of possible tsunamis. Corden wrote that Zerbo exemplifies “the high degree of dedication and competence necessary to bring together the scientific and diplomatic components of the CTBT.”

Siegfried Hecker, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and director emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in a letter of support for the award nomination that, since Zerbo became the executive secretary of the CTBTO, his diplomatic efforts “have gone into overdrive.” Thus far, 166 states have ratified the CTBT, but eight specific states still need to sign and ratify it in order for it to go into effect. “[Zerbo] is constantly on the go,” Hecker wrote, “trying to convince the remaining holdouts to ratify the treaty.”

Hecker added that Zerbo “is an outstanding scientist who is using his technical skills to build crucial societal links to help solve one of the most important issues of our times.”

A letter of support was also submitted by Robert C. Kemerait, senior scientist at the Patrick Air Force Base’s Air Force Technical Applications Center, who met Zerbo when Zerbo was named director of the International Data Center of the CTBTO in 2004. “Through international diplomacy built on established scientific achievement in nuclear testing verification,” Kemerait wrote, “Dr. Zerbo has fought to make this world safer for all the earth’s inhabitants.”

Zerbo was named Arms Control Person of the Year by the Arms Control Association in 2013, and he received the Presidential Medal during the 25th anniversary of the Republic of Kazakhstan in 2017. He earned a bachelor of science degree and a master of science degree in fundamental and applied geology at the Université de Caen in 1988, and a master of science degree in geophysics at the Université de Paris VI in 1989. Zerbo completed his Ph.D. in geophysics at the Université de Paris XI in 1992.

The AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy was approved by the AAAS Board of Directors in 2010 (it was formerly the AAAS International Scientific Cooperation Award, established in 1992). It recognizes an individual or a limited number of individuals working together in the scientific and engineering or foreign affairs communities making an outstanding contribution to furthering science diplomacy. The Award consists of a plaque and an honorarium of $5,000.

The award will be bestowed upon Zerbo during the 184th AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas on Feb. 16, 2018.

[Associated image: Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization]