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Science Diplomacy Suits Ernesto Fernandez Polcuch

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Ernesto Fernandez Polcuch. Credit: World Intellectual Property Organization

Being a science diplomat doesn’t always mean conferences and suits.

If you’re Ernesto Fernandez Polcuch, sometimes it means finding yourself on a boat in a frigid Andean lake … in a suit.

Fernandez Polcuch had just finished a training session for science and technology officials in Bolivia while working with the Ibero-American Network of Science and Technology Indicators (RICYT).

“After the training, they took us on a boat trip on Lake Titicaca,” he said. But a storm blew up during the outing on the lake, located more than 3,800 [meters] above sea level, “and I was still in a suit, completely wet. The waves were crashing over the boat, and I was convinced I was going to die on a science diplomacy mission in the middle of Lake Titicaca. I was really convinced I was going to be in the newspapers … it was a weird story.”

Fernandez Polcuch is now the head of Science Policy and Partnerships at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO was one of the first U.N. agencies, founded to promote economic development and the spread of scientific knowledge, and Fernandez Polcuch’s job is to help countries set goals for their emerging scientific establishments. The 50-year-old has had a globe-trotting career that has taken him from his hometown of Buenos Aires to UNESCO’s Paris headquarters by way of other Latin American countries and southern Africa. It’s a satisfying feeling to be an “agent of change,” he said.

“In every position I have had during my career, I have felt the impact we make on people and the countries that we serve,” Fernandez Polcuch said. “Sometimes it sounds a bit stereotyped, but it is real — sometimes the most difficult postings were the most rewarding.”

Much of Fernandez Polcuch’s work involves helping developing countries build up their own scientific capabilities. That will allow them to tackle their own problems and contribute to efforts to tackle others that reach across borders, he said. But he’s quick to note that UNESCO’s business isn’t development: “We’re a peace-building agency,” he said.

“We do it differently than our colleagues in the blue helmets,” he said. “We look at peace from the perspective of education, science, culture and communications.”

For instance, one of the projects UNESCO has supported is the SESAME synchrotron light source, the first major international research station in the Middle East. The magnetic particle accelerator, built in Jordan, is a joint project of nine countries from across the strife-torn region, including Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Scientists are using the project to probe properties of matter, which can have applications in everything from biotechnology to archaeology.

More recently, Fernandez Polcuch was in the South African capital Pretoria for a science diplomacy workshop that brought together representatives of 16 sub-Saharan nations — an event hosted by South Africa’s Academy of Sciences and co-sponsored by AAAS.

He was drawn to science diplomacy as a student in his native Argentina, where he studied computer science and biology at the University of Buenos Aires. At the time, the country was emerging from the “dark ages” of the military dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983. The university was transforming to a more democratic institution as well, and the country as a whole was debating what sort of science capabilities it should build.

“In a normal country, I would have been a scientist,” he said. “In Argentina, I became a science diplomat … Everyone was discussing politics and policy and thinking about the future in those years, and in that sense, it was difficult to not pay attention to what science could contribute to that future.”

His interest in that question led him to graduate studies and collecting statistics on research and development capabilities in Argentina, Brazil and beyond. And that led to collaborations among researchers about what data they needed to collect and how they should collect it. That in turn caught the interest of UNESCO, which had done similar work in the 1950s and ‘60s. He joined the agency in 2002 for what was supposed to be a temporary assignment, “and here I am 16 years later still working at UNESCO.”

But the experience of the post-dictatorship years left a lasting influence on his work, particularly in societies rebuilding themselves after a conflict. Working in Namibia, which won independence in 1990 after a lengthy guerrilla war against South Africa’s former apartheid government, “the vibe was very similar.” When he arrived in 2008, Namibia was having the same sort of debate about the role of science that Argentina had in his youth.

“There was this post-trauma situation where science needed to be rebuilt,” he said. “The skills of negotiation, the skills of understanding different approaches and analyzing the past to draw a new future were very, very important for me to contribute to their development.”

UNESCO encourages member countries to build research establishments and universities to train scientists, and it helps them make sure their scientific goals don’t clash with other policies, he said.

The work usually starts with data on what a country has at hand — its education system, government funding and research and development spending. While that data is readily available in the developed world, it can be harder to find in developing countries.

“If you don’t know where you start, it is very difficult to get anywhere,” Fernandez Polcuch said.

UNESCO helps countries align their plans with the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, which are aimed not only at reducing poverty and inequality but protecting the environment and minimizing the effect of climate change. And the way those policies are crafted should include everyone with a stake in them, including the public at large.

Global disputes still intrude, however. For instance, the United States is in the process of leaving UNESCO, a decision it made in 2017 to protest what it called an anti-Israel bias at the agency. But Fernandez Polcuch said ties with American scientists and institutions remain strong, regardless of whether the U.S. government remains a UNESCO member or quits international agreements like the Paris climate accord.

“The scientific communities continue the dialogue, continue collaborating, continue discussing, leaving the door open for politics to change or to go in different directions without necessarily meaning that we’re starting from scratch.”