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Talking science diplomacy with AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy Director Tom Wang

In the 21st century, the world’s biggest challenges are scientific and technical. But issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation, and disease outbreaks have little respect for the borders that humans have sketched across the globe.

Figuring out how researchers and governments can work together to tackle international issues is where Tom Wang comes in. Wang is the director of the Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS, which tries to build partnerships between scientists in the United States and their counterparts abroad. The center publishes the quarterly journal Science and Diplomacy and tries to foster connections with researchers in countries where formal ties might be tenuous.

Wang joined AAAS after serving as a State Department policy fellow from 2004-2006, where he worked with the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs on engaging regional partners in case of a flu pandemic. He’s now the association’s chief international officer.



Tom Wang joined AAAS after serving as a State Department policy fellow from 2004-2006. | Photo: AAAS

A lot of today’s global problems have strong scientific components. How are AAAS and the Center for Science Diplomacy engaged in those issues?
AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy Director Tom Wang:
“We have three thrusts to our work, and they address those issues in different ways. One is to build a community of stakeholders in science diplomacy. There are individuals in the foreign policy community, and others in science administration, and practicing scientists and engineers as well. So how do we build a cohesive science diplomacy community to be able to have discussions, to work on joint projects, to devise strategies and policies to address all these issues that we talk about?

The second thrust is really about working deeply to try to make connections between the U.S. and certain countries that the U.S. doesn’t necessarily have a great relationship with, and to demonstrate and to catalyze the ability of the U.S. and–as an example–Cuba, to cooperate on the issues that you mentioned. These are issues that are certainly global, but also dealt with on a bilateral level. So it’s about trying to bring scientists from two countries together that traditionally have had diplomatic barriers, to overcome them and to be able work cooperatively on these issues.

And then a third thrust of the center is to really develop and be a platform for thinking about science diplomacy in new ways, and ways that can address the issues you’ve raised–from climate change, to energy security, to dealing with the science and technology issues that might prevent some of the refugee and migration crises that we’re seeing coming out of the Middle East. It’s to build intellectual capacity, to be a place where scholars, practitioners and policymakers can share insights into new ways to address these relevant issues.

How did AAAS get into this arena?
AAAS has done what can be called now science diplomacy before we created the Center for Science Diplomacy in 2008. In 1978, before the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China normalized diplomatic relations, AAAS actually sent a very senior delegation of board members on a mission to China to develop relations with our counterparts then. It really underpinned future collaborations we really benefit from today.

Another more recent example, but still 20 years ago, was in 1997. The then-AAAS president, Rita Caldwell, led an AAAS delegation to Cuba during a period when there wasn’t nearly as much positive news as there is today in the U.S.-Cuban relationship. The AAAS delegation tried to better inform the U.S. science community on developments in biotechnology that Cuba has really focused on and which has really developed into a world-class field in Cuba.

When we started the Center for Science Diplomacy, it built upon all of these visits–the history of scientific interactions that have benefited from and have benefits to diplomatic relations–both between countries and between the scientific communities of countries that we have more difficult relationships with.

How has science diplomacy contributed to resolving some of the problems we’ve grappled with in the recent past?
I think the classic example is during the Cold War, the role of the physics community in enabling both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to cooperate on arms control and the push to reduce nuclear weapons. That was very much a result of the connections between the U.S. physics societies and certain individual physicists and their relationships with their Soviet counterparts. The scientific community played a critical role in the ability of the Soviet Union and the United States to keep the Cold War cold.

There was a very senior American physicist in the ‘80s who, because of the closeness of the international physics community, was friends with Soviet physicist who was a close adviser to [Mikhail] Gorbachev. Because of the relationship and the trust that he had with the Soviet physicist, who had the ear of Gorbachev … beyond the public displays of antagonism, that there was room for [President Ronald] Reagan and Gorbachev to develop a good relationship and be able to start further arms control agreements and reduce the tension between the two countries.

There are fewer examples like the Iran nuclear deal, which was a direct interaction with the technical negotiations and the relationship between Secretary Moniz on the U.S. side and Salehi on the Iranian side [U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization], in which they were both at MIT and were both physicists. … It’s even more important that science and technology conversations and the contributions of scientists and engineers are in all parts of a diplomatic relationship, rather than, say, one specific event or one specific negotiation of a treaty.

What we’re talking about here is politics, something a lot of scientists say they want to avoid. Why should they consider getting involved in controversies like these?
The majority of science diplomacy is not controversial. There’s no doubt that we need to work together, and there’s no political difficulty in trying to figure out ways to work together on the Zika virus, because it’s going to affect us and each of our societies. Even if it isn’t controversial, though, is that science diplomacy relies on the ability of the scientific community and the diplomatic community to be able to engage with each other in some way. That’s the challenge. They have two different mindsets, two different timelines for thinking about things. They weigh different sets of criteria, and their decision-making is very different. So one of the things our center tries to do is to build bridges between these different communities.

I almost think it’s a no-brainer, but it’s important to be explicit: If we’re talking about scientific collaborations that have diplomatic benefits, first and foremost they need to have scientific benefits. The scientific merit of any science diplomacy activity should be that you’re also doing good science, and that the credibility within the scientific community and the scientists involved is sound. These activities are not just about making countries feel better or just about breaking diplomatic barriers.

Where’s the next potential flashpoint, or opportunity for cooperation, depending on your viewpoint?
What we’ve seen in the last few years, and certainly one of the areas we’re prioritizing, is the use of science diplomacy in countries that aren’t regional scientific powers. We do a summer course that’s in partnership with the World Academy of Sciences, which represents the developing world, that focuses on developing countries’ scientists–international science policy professionals as well as foreign policy professionals–in order to help build capacity in these countries. … There’s a great need for science diplomacy in the developing world, because most of the critical issues they have to address in their countries’ development have a science and technology basis.

What advice would you offer to a researcher who wants to be involved in the diplomatic arena?
There certainly is a role, and there are many different kinds of opportunities. The main thing is that you can certainly do science diplomacy without doing it in the formal way, of being part of the diplomatic corps or working in the State Department or foreign ministry. You can be a science diplomat within the scientific community and engaging with other scientists within the scientific community. I think the fear is you have to beocome a professional diplomat or have to work in the State Department, if you’re in the U.S.  You don’t have to do that.

A simple thing to do is, if you’re at a university, start connecting the networks. If you’re an engineering student or in more of the natural sciences, become involved in maybe the foreign policy society, a student association at your local university. I think one of the challenges is just having part of the science community be able to talk with the foreign policy community. A university is a perfect place where a science student can engage with a political science or international relations student. You can take courses certainly, but to become more involved in that world is one of the essential things for science diplomacy.