The Science of Diplomacy

May 5, 2009

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his 20-person Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a group including two Nobel laureates. He also proclaimed his intention to increase scientific research spending to 3 percent of GDP, $70 billion more per year. The news prolonged Obama’s honeymoon with U.S. scientists, spurred by his senior-level appointments of highly respected specialists such as Dr. John Holdren and Dr. Steven Chu as well as his re-legalization of stem cell research in his first days in office.

As he recommits resources to this most important field, Obama must remember that science and technology have tremendous applications in and effects on the world of foreign policy as well. Given the United States’ predominance in technology, engineering, health, and innovation, other countries want to engage with and benefit from the United States’ ideas and products. Still, past U.S. governments have not taken full advantage of the power and potential of science to improve foreign affairs and make a safer, healthier world. To engage in science diplomacy — defined here as scientific cooperation and engagement with the explicit intent of building positive relationships with foreign governments and societies — Obama should do the following.

Think strategically. Scientific cooperation can be a fruitful and apolitical way to engage countries where diplomatic relations are strained. For example, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has sponsored scientific exchanges with Iran for the last several years. As part of these exchanges, young Iranians enthusiastically welcome visits from U.S. thinkers like Nobel laureate in physics Joseph Taylor. Scientists work together on issues of mutual interest such as public health and earthquake preparedness. A nascent effort at science diplomacy is now underway in Syria, which recently welcomed a high-level visit of U.S. scientists and educators. The delegation met for over an hour with President Bashar al-Assad, himself a medical doctor, to discuss potential areas of cooperation outside the realm of politics.

Think offensively as well as defensively. Current policies regarding international cooperation often restrict access to U.S. technologies — keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists, for instance. But such defensive policies should be matched with better offensive policies: bringing the world’s best scientists and scientific businesses into the United States and sending American scientists out to aid the world more often.

To this end, the United States should provide visas and scholarships to usher talented students into American universities and dramatically increase the number of H-1B visas, which admit specialized workers such as doctors and physicists. The United States should also send more professionals to aid in conducting disease surveillance, developing clean energy technologies, facilitating environmental adaptation, and providing early warning of impending natural disasters.

Think about people — not just governments. Foreign publics admire American science and technology far more than they admire America. Indeed, an analysis of Pew polling data from 43 countries shows that favorable views of American science and technology exceed overall views of the United States by an average of 23 points. This presents the United States with a public diplomacy opportunity: to remind foreign people of what they like about the United States and to highlight constructive partnerships between Americans and foreign scientists, engineers, doctors, and technology business leaders.

As a first step, the U.S. government should publicize successful partnerships with other countries and the relevant accomplishments of Americans. This means trumpeting Bill Gates as much as government officials and naming Nobel laureates like Egyptian-American chemist Ahmed Zewail as goodwill ambassadors. It means exposing the thousands of U.S.-government-sponsored scientific visitors to American society and politics, not just science.

Facing a complex set of foreign-policy challenges, the United States can no longer afford to overlook such a useful instrument of statecraft. Regrettably, the U.S. government is not well organized to take advantage of science diplomacy. The National Science Foundation and technical departments (Energy, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Defense) apply their resources to science — but not to its diplomatic use. Thus, the Obama administration should appoint a senior-level ambassador for science and technology cooperation in the State Department. He or she could convene an interagency group coordinating the strategic use of science diplomacy.

But importantly, the Obama administration must change current approaches. Foreign-policy leaders — especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — must recognize the power of this means of engagement. The United States has emphasized in past weeks its commitment to the globally shared goals of healthier populations, a cleaner environment, safer societies, and a better life for all. Recognizing the potential of science diplomacy will certainly help maximize the United States’ realization of these goals.