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Short terms, long gains: Embassy Science Fellows build bridges abroad

In a whirlwind six-week tour at the Hague in the Netherlands and then to Stockholm, Sweden, Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) alum Raj Madhavan drew on his background in robotics and automation to advise on policy matters concerning artificial intelligence, ethics, and their impacts on the digital economy.  

Over 90 jam-packed days in Peru, current fellow Shavonn Whiten learned how dozens of small, medium, and large-scale green asparagus producers approached pest control, with an eye towards addressing environmental and trade challenges.  

Shavonn Whiten on a field visit
Shavonn Whiten conducts a field visit with SENASA and Peruvian asparagus growers in La Libertad region. Image | USG APHIS FSO

And in New Delhi, India, alum Matt West spent a month collaborating with the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service to lead discussions at universities and other public forums on issues related to plant and animal health, and food safety.  

The common thread of these short, intense experiences: all were carried out as Embassy Science Fellowships (ESF), a program of the Department of State open to any scientific expert in the federal government, including AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows (STPF).  

ESFs are selected to advise on issues identified by host countries and U.S. diplomatic staff at embassies around the world; they are seen as able to contribute impartial, expert advising on complex topics.  

“A majority of diplomats overseas see it as an essential program to meet their goals,” said ESF program coordinator Amal Moussaoui Haynes. An increasingly complex international policy sphere demands “the diplomat and scientist coming together to make it happen,” Haynes added.   

From 2014 to 2020, over 550 ESFs participated in project proposals written by U.S. embassies on a wide variety of topics, including climate resilience, natural resource management, global public health, and urban planning and waste. Cybertechnology, emerging technology and innovation are also rapidly growing domains.  

While demand for fellows is high, availability of fellowships is limited; Haynes said the 2021 round had received 120 proposals from embassies. But because it is difficult for candidates to leave their jobs for several months, historically only 50 to 70 percent of proposals are filled; virtual and hybrid models now exist that allow for higher rates of participation.  

In the last 20 years, the most active countries in the ESF program include Mission China (multiple embassies in China), Philippines, Croatia, Portugal and Vietnam. Other notable countries include Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Palau, India, and Ukraine. To date, top participating agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health; scientists from the Department of Agriculture and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also frequently participate in ESF projects. In the last two years, given interest in health and cybersecurity, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security have joined the program and their fellows have been very successful.  Demand is high and growing, Haynes added.  

Madhavan, who was an STPF fellow in the State Department’s Division for International Communications and Information Policy from 2019 to 2021, has kept a central tenet in mind throughout his academic career and the pivot into policy: how can he help make technology useful for humanity.  

“Technology can elevate people’s lifestyles, or bring them down where tech isn’t keeping pace with growth, such as in developing countries,” Madhavan said. The opportunity to be embedded in an embassy, in an “on the ground, in the trenches tour” allowed him to work closely with people implementing policies day in and out, and gain a better understanding on how tech policies translate in host countries.  

Bringing in a technical expert to advise on emerging matters of concern “allows the U.S. and its allies to firm up our commonalities, but also to know where our differences are,” Madhavan added.  

Whiten is a 2019-21 STPF fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development and a 2021-22 STPF fellow at the Bangladesh Mission. While her mosquito-laden Louisiana origins were a factor in “entomology choosing me” as a career, it was the connection between novel gene-editing technologies and pest control that ultimately drove her turn into policy. She was drawn to the ability to translate science, be involved in nation-building, and help collaborators use science for the benefit of underserved populations.  

A career advisor put it to her succinctly: “’I think the career you’re looking for is in science diplomacy,’” Whiten recalled.  

As an ESF fellow in Peru, Whiten designed a field program to help asparagus producers to better understand pest control strategies. As virtually all Peruvian green asparagus enters the country through the Port of Miami, where it is fumigated with methyl bromide to kill any hitchhiking pests, the crop is ineligible for organic certification. However, with a more nuanced, seasonal pest management approaches such as those used by larger producers with staff scientists, small-scale growers can adopt practices that could allow for lifting of mandatory fumigation regulations.  

Whiten’s work also involved developing a set of asparagus crop pest management regulatory recommendations that were central to a bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Peru in September 2021 to discuss alternative pest control strategies for Peruvian growers.  

“For many of the smaller producers, income from asparagus production is the livelihood for the entire family,” Whiten said. Access to better pest control strategies is beneficial for producers economically as well as environmentally.  

Biochemist Matthew West served as an STPF fellow from 2006 to 2008 in the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. He specifically targeted the ESF program in 2007 with an eye toward deepening his policy experience.  

Now, as a foreign service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Morocco and on the other side of the embassy equation, West says ESF fellows’ work has tremendous impact on U.S. relationships abroad. As an example, a project to grow “green hydrogen” capacity in Morocco is a current undertaking that ESF fellows are involved in. Beyond making best-in-class U.S. scientific expertise and research accessible to Moroccan counterparts, the relationships established through those collaborations will continue to yield benefits, both economically for the host countries, and professionally for the scientists.  

“We [diplomats] may come and go, but the scientific relationships are long-lasting,” West said. “And their network has just grown two, five, tenfold in terms of what they can do around the world. You can also see how their science work has a much bigger meaning in the context of political and economic relationships.”  


Michelle Donahue

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