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Secretary of State Hearing Underscores the Importance of Science Diplomacy

As policymakers vetted U.S. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, former chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, AAAS on 11 January published an op-ed in The Hill, emphasizing the role that science, technology and innovation play in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy.

AAAS CEO Rush Holt and Chief International Officer Tom Wang acknowledged that the Senate must consider myriad factors in assessing the candidate’s readiness to serve as Secretary of State. They added, however, that “a critical question will be how effectively he will use the science and technology assets, within the Department of State and outside.” Such assets must be leveraged to ground decisions in good science and "to build diplomatic bridges on international scientific relationships,” Holt and Wang wrote in their op-ed.

The authors pointed out that Americans have long recognized the value of science to foreign policy, beginning with the exchange of U.S. and British scientists during the Revolutionary War. President Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou also took advantage of science diplomacy to help normalize relations at the end of the Cold War, and currently, U.S. and Cuba scientists are working together on efforts to combat cancer and predict hurricanes.

Today, Holt and Wang noted, international research groups are sharing information related to food and water security, infectious disease and environmental issues, including climate change. American ingenuity is the country’s “signature asset,” the authors wrote, and thus, “as senators vet Rex Tillerson’s ability to lead the Department of State, the potential of science, technology and innovation as a primary driver of economic growth, scientific progress and global security should be central to their inquiries.”

In addition to The Hill op-ed, Holt this week sent a letter to leaders of the Senate and each of the Senate committees with responsibility for vetting some of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet-level nominees. “I write to encourage you to include questions about the conduct and use of science and technology as the Senate vets the nominees for the highest ranking positions in the Trump Administration,” Holt wrote to policymakers.

The incoming administration will confront many issues at the intersection of science and society, from national and energy security to U.S. economic competitiveness and how best to respond to disease outbreaks and natural disasters, Holt noted. The new administration thus would benefit from “a strong foundation in scientific knowledge and technological expertise.”

Holt’s letter recommended four specific questions for all Cabinet-level nominees, as follows:

  • How would you foster a culture of scientific transparency and accountability at your department or agency, while protecting scientists and engineers from political interference in their work?
  • Science is essential to many of the laws and policies that keep Americans safe and secure. How would science inform your department or agency’s decisions to add, modify, or remove federal regulations or policies? What mechanisms would you use to gather relevant scientific evidence and what weight would that evidence be given in the policymaking process at your department or agency?
  • Given existing budgetary constraints that place a burden on discretionary spending, what would be your science and engineering research priorities, and how would you balance short-term versus long-term funding?
  • In an age dominated by complex science and technology, the federal workforce needs to have adequate STEM literacy and skills to remain competitive and operate efficiently. How would your department or agency work to attract the best and brightest to serve our nation and address the particular challenges your department or agency will face?

As part of the association’s effort to advocate for science, technology and innovation, AAAS has launched an online Election Transition Information portal, which will be updated throughout the presidential transition and inauguration as well as the new administration’s first 100 days.



Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs

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