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Why Mobilizing America’s Researchers Makes Sense for Diplomacy

President Obama delivers remarks at the National Academy of Sciences SOURCE: AP/Gerald Herbert President Barack Obama addresses the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, Monday, April 27, 2009. In his address, the president announced major initiatives to boost research funding and bolster math and science education.

Scientists as diplomats? Beyond longstanding cross-border, science-specific collaboration, the role of individual scientists representing the United States abroad would not immediately jump out as the best use of U.S. government resources of U.S. universities’ faculty members. The Obama administration thought otherwise—and is reaping the benefits in the Muslim world. U.S. universities should take notice.

The administration got things started with an address to the National Academy of Sciences in April 2009, during which President Obama announced major initiatives to boost research funding and bolster math and science education. The president called science, “more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, and our environment than it has ever been.”

In November 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named three prominent U.S. scientists—professors Ahmed Zewail of the California Institute of Technology, Elias Zerhouni of John Hopkins School of Medicine, and Bruce Alberts of the University of California, San Francisco—to serve as the country’s first three Science Envoys as part of President Obama’s “New Beginning” initiative with Muslim communities around the world. In the year since their appointment, the Science Envoys traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia to identify opportunities to deepen partnerships in science and technology.

To further demonstrate the administration’s commitment to science diplomacy, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) announced three additional Science Envoys to Muslim-majority nations—professors Rita Colwell of the University of Maryland, Gebisa Ejeta of Purdue University, and Alice Gast, president of Lehigh University—at CRDF Global’s George Brown Award in September 2010. These news envoys will build upon the work of their predecessors, in new nations including Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The Science Envoys program is one of several recent U.S. science diplomacy initiatives that recognize the important foreign policy benefits of international science engagement. The connection between science and diplomacy may not seem critical, particularly when one considers the very complex web of political, cultural, economic and security issues that modern diplomacy must address. But it is precisely this complexity that requires fresh approaches to building bridges, forging trust and building lasting relationships.

What is “science diplomacy” and how can scientists contribute to international peace and security? To some, science diplomacy may be viewed broadly and include, for example, the international collaboration taking place at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, where nearly 8,000 scientists and engineers—representing 580 universities and research facilities and 80 nationalities—are seeking to unravel the mysteries of subatomic physics. Or consider the bilateral activities that U.S. government agencies are implementing under almost 50 intergovernmental science agreements signed with other countries.

While important for solving scientific problems and strengthening international cooperation, these initiatives represent established cooperation among longstanding partners. The uniqueness of President Obama’s “New Beginnings” science diplomacy initiative is its focus on using science as a tool for engaging countries that are emerging from isolation or with which political relations are strained. Science diplomacy involves dialogue, exchanges, and eventually collaboration. It is a long process that requires creativity, patience, and perseverance to achieve success.

Mobilizing America’s researchers for science diplomacy makes sense for three reasons. First, many of today’s global challenges—food, water, energy, climate, and health—require technical solutions. Scientists, engineers and innovators must be involved in understanding these problems and then designing and implementing the proposed solutions. In a flat world, scientists must work in partnership with colleagues around the world. Very few of today’s global challenges are confined to any single country. Disease, drought, and environmental degradation know no borders. They can be successfully addressed only through cross-border collaboration.

Secondly, U.S. science and technology is highly respected around the world. Recent polling of citizens in Muslim-majority countries shows high regard for U.S. science and technology leadership. This is an area where their citizens seek cooperation with the United States. By building on this interest, the United States can significantly expand opportunities for collaboration.

Third, scientists and engineers speak a common language that transcends political, cultural, and economic boundaries. Whether working in the United States, scientists from Russia, Egypt, or Indonesia understand and apply the same formulas and principles. They are driven by an overwhelming interest to discover new knowledge and find solutions to some of today’s most vexing problems. Their ability to forge new pathways of collaboration, often despite difficult political environments, is a valuable tool for diplomacy. Furthermore, as we have seen all around the world, when science and technology flourishes, so do economies.

What is needed for science diplomacy to succeed? First, we must continue to educate the international research community, policymakers, and the public about the importance of science diplomacy. Earlier this year, CRDF Global joined with the Partnership for a Secure America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science to highlight the importance of science diplomacy.

Through the release of a bipartisan statement signed by leading scientists and diplomats, coupled with workshops held in Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley, and with additional events planned in 2011, we are building broad-based support for mobilizing one of America’s greatest assets—its scientists and engineers—as a key part of U.S. diplomacy.

Secondly, we must provide concrete opportunities for scientists and engineers to engage globally. Science and technology must be an integral part of our foreign policy agenda, particularly when dealing with countries with which the United States has strained relations. Science implementing agencies and organizations, both within and outside government, should be empowered to catalyze and test new initiatives and receive the appropriate policy and financial support from the U.S. government.

But this should be a comprehensive effort that that spans not just U.S. government agencies but also universities, the nonprofit community, and private businesses. Agencies should give higher priority to international collaboration as integral to achieving specific agency objectives. U.S. universities should provide incentives for faculty and student exchanges overseas, particularly with developing countries or countries emerging from isolation. Foundations and nonprofit organizations should lead the way in developing and testing innovative new program approaches.

The third success factor is designing systems to periodically assess and evaluate progress being made as a result of science diplomacy efforts. This is not an easy task because success is likely to be years in the making, and may be measured in incremental steps, such as the ability to exchange science delegations or the development of collaborative agreements. In some cases, the fact that scientists are keeping open a channel of communication, particularly when other channels have closed, is a positive indicator. We know from U.S. scientists who collaborated with Soviet scientists during the darkest days of the Cold War that these relationships kept open a valuable channel of communication, and provided the trust needed to pursue the nonproliferation agenda of the 1990s.

CRDF Global has been mobilizing America’s researchers to promote peace and prosperity through international science collaboration for 15 years. Recently, we initiated our new Global Innovation through Science and Technology initiative to work with partners in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia to create new mechanisms for technology development, establish digital libraries such as the highly successful model in Iraq, and strengthen capacity for scientific research.

Science diplomacy is not easy and by itself will not solve the world’s problems. But it is an important and underutilized resource that must be tapped more energetically for the benefit of global prosperity. When the infrastructure for collaboration exists, there is always hope. Science diplomacy provides that infrastructure and points the course to sustainability. Whether it is furthering nonproliferation goals by encouraging civilian science and technology, fostering scientific collaboration between scientists of regions with historical tensions such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, or developing a Virtual Science Library to bring Iraqi scientists and engineers into the global community, foreign policy is positively shaped by international science engagement.

When we have education and innovation, we have progress and peace. When science advances, civilizations advance.

Cathy Campbell is president and chief executive officer of CRDF Global, an independent nonprofit organization that promotes international scientific and technical collaboration.

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