Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop Trains Next Generation of Leaders and Advocates

What do snails, space, improvisational theater, and innovation have in common? Turns out, more than you may think. As participants at the first Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop learned first-hand, the practice of science diplomacy is both an interdisciplinary and global affair.

Drawing on previous iterations of workshops co-hosted with partners at Arizona State University in Washington D.C., and in Italy and Namibia with The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the Center for Science Diplomacy hosted its first science diplomacy workshop at AAAS headquarters from September 11–15, 2017. The hands-on event bought together 32 participants from 10 countries — among them scientists, diplomats, PhD candidates, communicators, and science educators. Participants were among the first to view a new online primer course produced by the Center for Science Diplomacy — which is also the first full online course dedicated to science diplomacy.

However, online courses and in-person courses serve different purposes, audiences and end goals. For Mahlet Mesfin, Deputy Director of the Center for Science Diplomacy, the objective of workshops is for participants to return to their institutions and countries and become practitioners and advocates who can effectively communicate and bridge a global culture of science diplomacy that addresses issues from climate change, health and infectious for policy impact.

“We want these participants not only to leave with a greater appreciation of the many facets of science diplomacy but become future leaders who create change at the interface of science and international affairs. This workshop took our primer on science diplomacy to the next level and expanded the network of current and future science diplomats,” Mesfin said. 

In addition to workshop participants, a lineup of more than 30 U.S. and international speakers from a wide spectrum of diplomacy and science fields rounded out the five-day program. They shared specific case studies (such as successful science diplomacy initiatives in Cuba and Iran or vaccine diplomacy in the Middle East), personal career trajectories (such as how a chemist-entrepreneur became Costa Rican Ambassador to the United States), and lessons learned from the field (such as how a snail scientist from Brooklyn became a science diplomat with missions to Papua New Guinea and Panama.)

“Take every opportunity to listen”

As Senior Project Director at the Center for Science Diplomacy, Marga Gual Soler, noted, AAAS has consistently been at the forefront of using science diplomacy as a way of bridging relationships - perhaps most notably with scientists in Cuba. She and other speakers emphasized that science is an excellent way to gain trust, especially in situations where diplomatic and political relations are strained.

Establishing credibility with her counterparts has been one key to the AAAS-Cuban partnership. “My scientific background as a biomedical scientist, but also my Spanish language and culture, allowed me to talk to scientists on their level,” she said. “Building trust starts by recognizing each other, and it’s easier to overcome obstacles when you identify with someone rather than saying ‘this is my agenda.’”

For former U.S. Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, current Visiting Scholar at the Center, science and technology have always been a lynchpin connecting a variety of issues and disciplines. As U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso and Uganda — two countries that experienced major disease outbreaks during his postings — Kolker learned firsthand that several areas touch upon science diplomacy, and that each needs to be given proper respect to keep issues such as health high on the agenda.

Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop participants with Román Macaya Costa Rican Ambassador to the United States (back row, far left) | Amy Shifflette

“It’s a huge challenge to be a health and science diplomat in dynamic situations such as disease outbreaks,” Kolker said. “Investments in health and science must be seen as serious investments, otherwise they risk getting cut. The economics of health scenarios — such as the financial costs of asthma or particulates in the air — are ultimately those that will raise health issues on national agendas.”

Other health diplomats, such as Cristina Rabadan-Diehl, noted that building capacity in research communities is critical, as often people at governmental levels do not have adequate sientific knowledge to advance the agenda. In her work as Director of the Americas in the Office of Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, she emphasized that it is important to give credence to the people working on the ground just as much as those at Ministries of Health. She encouraged participants to “learn how to speak every language.”

“You’d be surprised by how many tools you have in your toolbox that you didn’t know would be useful,” Rabadan-Diel said. She was born in Spain, trained as a researcher, and couldn’t have planned her career trajectory — but is imbued with as sense of duty to make a difference in reducing chronic non-communicable diseases globally.

Cultivating a sense of duty and translating scientific roles into broader diplomatic goals was a key theme of the workshop.

UNESCO Chief of Science Policy and Partnerships Ernesto Fernandez-Polcuch spoke about the importance of the multilateral system in promoting science diplomacy for addressing global challenges. “For an international organization whose mission is establishing peace and security through science, education and culture, our mere presence as a global actor can positively influence the agenda.” For example, during the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) negotiations, Fernandez-Polcuch said the fact that UNESCO sat at the table helped to advance the dialogue by adding a layer of legitimacy.

“Science diplomacy is built one scientist at a time”

One of the highlights of the workshop program included a visit to the Embassy of Costa Rica where participants heard from science attaches from countries such as Peru, Mexico, Panama, and Cuba on how science helps shape their country’s engagement with the U.S. and beyond. Roman Macaya, Costa Rican Ambassador to the United States, explained his trajectory from chemist and entrepreneur to diplomat. Though the Washington diplomatic arena is dominated by security and trade, putting science high on the agenda can generate concrete results, especially for smaller countries. At the Costa Rican embassy, science is one of the highest priority issues.

He encouraged workshop participants to do what they love. “Many doors will open that you can’t see unless you take the next step in science diplomacy,” he said. “We will always be scientists, truth seekers, and fact-checkers to policy. Don’t be afraid of a career change.”

Former U.S. Ambassador John Maisto echoed Macaya’s sentiment, stating that during his time as a diplomat in several Latin American countries and the Organization of American States he was practicing science diplomacy without knowing it. “There is a real need for leaders with bold visions and new ideas as well as increasing role for scientists in foreign affairs,” he said.

Academics as science diplomats

A consistent theme throughout the week-long workshop was highlighting how academics from across disciplines and cultures have cultivated science diplomacy to conduct highly interdisciplinary and international research.

As the international participants noted, many countries invest in science and scientists last, while other countries have it at the top of the agenda. According to Hassan Vafai, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Arizona and Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, science is already at the top of the agenda in many countries. For example in his home country, Iran, “a professor is even more powerful than a minister.”

In her work as professor, scientist and educator, Mande Holford’s noted that she feels the effects of science diplomacy every time she goes into the field to study venomous snails. To collect the snails for her research she must build relationships with counterpart scientists in the field. And snails’ and their venom are increasingly being used in biomedical research, which pharmaceutical companies — as well as countries — are becoming more aware of, the diplomacy side is becoming as critical as the science componnt.

Holford explained that upwards of 60–70% of medicines come from natural product resources. Countries want, and have a right to, a piece of this wealth. Import/export tariffs and laws surrounding the intellectual property of biomedical product compounds increasingly poses complicated issue for both scientists and science diplomats.

“Decisions are being made in boardrooms about scientists without scientists present,” Holford said. “We not only need to establish long-term win-win relationships with the countries and people where we do research, we need science diplomats to ensure that countries don’t slow biomedical research and the drug pipeline to a halt.”

The Mission Continues

Sometimes science and environmental problems need to be recast as opportunities for innovation in science diplomacy. This was the message from Alex Dehgan, former USAID Chief Scientist and co-founder of Conservation X, a start-up focused on harnessing innovative technology for conservation.

For Dehgan, one of the main problems in conservation is actually the conservationists themselves. Big conservation problems, he said, need to be addressed by engineers, biologists, communicators, and problem solvers of all kinds. Each actor in conservation has science diplomacy in common — principally to get relationships started, but also to show respect to people and unite innovation, science and technology, and entrepreneurialism.

“We tend to teach disciplines in school rather than teaching problem solving,” Dehgan said. “Can you imagine if the scientists and conservationists — people who actually can save the world — would partner with the people in Silicon Valley — people who think they could save the world? Great things would happen.”

The capstone of the course was a visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, just outside of Washington in Greenbelt, MD. A panel of earth scientists reflected on their work with counterpart scientists across the globe, and emphasized how the sharing of information and satellite techniques helps solve puzzles they wouldn’t otherwise be able to from their vantage point in the U.S.

Paul Newman, NASA Senior Scientist in Atmospheric Science, co-chaired the Scientific Assessment Panel to the Montreal Protocol — a key example of science diplomacy in action. It was thanks to the Montreal Protocol, Newman explained, that companies, countries, and consumers began phasing out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that contribute to depleting the ozone layer. The Protocol promoted universal participation, early action, and assisted developing countries through technology transfer.

Rush Holt, AAAS CEO, wrapped up the workshop, underscoring that science diplomacy is an essential element of both science and international relations. “You are on an important mission, and you can make this workshop a success by what you do” Holt said. “There are so many things you can do with a science degree besides, or in addition to, working in a laboratory.”