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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Society for Neuroscience

E. William Colglazier
Science and Technology Adviser
Washington, DC
May 14, 2012


E. William Colglazier is the fourth Science and Technology Adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He provides scientific and technical expertise in support of the development and implementation of United States foreign policy. A highly respected physicist, he was previously the Executive Officer of the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council. Colglazier strongly supports global scientific engagement by the United States to create knowledge, solve global problems, and promote diplomacy.

Q: What is unique about science that makes it a particularly good mechanism for advancing global diplomatic efforts? What are Secretary Clinton's priorities on this issue in the year ahead, and what can international scientific societies such as SfN do to further the goals of science diplomacy?

Secretary Clinton has emphasized science and technology as a key element of "smart power" and "economic statecraft" in advancing our diplomacy. My eight-month tenure as Science and Technology (S&T) Adviser to the Secretary has increased my appreciation of the great potential of America's S&T capabilities for enhancing our diplomacy. Because of the accelerating pace of technological change and its unquestioned impact on economic development, nearly every country must engage in S&T on a world-class level and become more innovative, which means engaging with the United States. As a consequence, our science diplomacy has become an important mechanism to build knowledge- and innovation-based societies around the world and spread scientific values, including meritocracy and transparency, that support democracy. S&T are also crucial for dealing with major challenges facing countries, such as ensuring public health, adequate food supply, clean water, clean energy, climate change mitigation and adaptation, environmental protection, disaster preparedness and response, cyber security, and physical security. Many of these challenges transcend borders. There is a renewed recognition that countries need to cooperate in science and technology to find global solutions. Nongovernmental S&T organizations, including SfN, are a great asset; they are engaging with S&T communities around the world, even in countries where diplomatic relations with the United States are strained or non-existent. These channels of communication can become especially important and influential when "windows of opportunity" emerge in governmental relations.

Q: International collaboration is vital to the scientific endeavor, yet nations also compete for leadership in science. How can and should the United States balance competition and collaboration when it comes to science?

The United States has much to gain from global scientific engagement and from helping to develop more knowledge- and innovation-based based societies around the world. Since knowledge is not a zero-sum game, all boats rise with the tide. At the same time, such efforts build more capable competitors, and enhanced S&T capabilities around the globe can create new threats and security challenges. We need to "keep our eyes open" and protect our interests. Nevertheless, it is critical for the United States to engage internationally in S&T since expertise is spreading rapidly around the globe. Learning from others is essential for us to stay at the forefront of the scientific and technological revolution.

Q: President Obama has called for the United States to invest strongly in R&D as an engine for human progress and economic growth. Even in the face of budget constraints, how do we work to prioritize bold science investment in biomedical and physical sciences, both here and abroad?

Even with the budget constraints, the President in his proposal to Congress has protected investments in research and development. Our R&D budgets may not be growing as fast as we would like or as fast percentage-wise as R&D budgets in some countries, but America's core investments in fundamental and applied research are not in danger even with the pressure on slowing the growth of governmental expenditures. For the last several decades, there has been strong bipartisan agreement on the importance of investments in S&T. One indication of this consensus is the 2005 National Academies report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which was commissioned in response to a bipartisan request from the United States Senate and resulted in the bipartisan legislation of the America Competes Act. Even with the current tight budgets, a great strength of the American governmental system for supporting R&D is its diversity as represented by the large number of United States agencies that conduct R&D and/or fund R&D at our universities, national laboratories, and private companies. Each of our funding agencies will need to focus in the current environment on how to ensure the most promising and meritorious research continues to be funded. A second strength of the U.S. R&D enterprise is the important role of the private sector, which provides the majority of funding for research and development in the United States. Many research universities have created interdisciplinary research centers to address problems that require expertise from a range of scientific and engineering disciplines. Many centers have been initiated with core government support and have become self-supporting with funding from private companies, foundations, and government grants and contracts. The diversity of the American support system for R&D is a source of resilience in times of tight budgets. I convey these messages to our foreign counterparts.

Q: In the lead up to your arrival at the State Department, many lauded your emphasis on "science networks" — forging connections and collaborations internationally, as well as across traditional scientific specialties and boundaries. What are the strengths of global science networks today and what can scientists do to promote them?

Global science networks have expanded enormously due to the ease of communication with the information and communication technology revolution, the spread of cutting-edge expertise around the world, and support for international research collaborations. Most scientists already engage with a global community in their specialty. Because many problems are at the boundaries of traditional disciplines, there has also been a rapid growth in multidisciplinary approaches that bring together scientists in different fields from around the world. One excellent example is how molecular biologists are working with ecologists and veterinarians to understand factors involved in how new infectious diseases emerge and spread. With the pace of globalization of research and the rise of interdisciplinarity in science, universities are challenged to know about all of the international collaborations supported even in their own ranks. Scientists have an important role to play in forging new international partnerships, and making them known within their own university communities, and particularly with their students — tomorrow's leaders and global scientists.

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