It is a pleasure to speak about “science diplomacy” to the International Advisory Board of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation this evening. I have been the science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State for a little over one year. Most of my career has been outside of government, first as a theoretical physicist, then an academic focusing on science and technology policy, and then for twenty years at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Research Council. In the latter role, I helped to oversee studies advising the American government and public on issues where insights from science and technology are needed.
I will give a simple-minded definition of what I mean by science diplomacy. By “science,” I include not only the physical and biological sciences, but also the social sciences, engineering, and medicine. Science diplomacy is: (1) science and technology aiding diplomacy (even if just by opening doors for dialogue), (2) diplomacy advancing science and technology (such as by negotiating multinational arrangements for building large facilities), and (3) science and technology helping to solve national, regional, and global problems (such as by creating new options and paths for making progress on the “wicked problems” too difficult for politicians to resolve alone). The purpose of science diplomacy is to help improve relations between countries and make all people more secure, healthy, peaceful and prosperous.
My office at the State Department helps to facilitate science diplomacy, but also helps to build the scientific and technical human capacity inside the Department, assists our bureaus and offices on specific matters where science and technology are relevant, and helps to anticipate scientific and technical issues that may affect international relations and/or disrupt societies in either positive or negative ways. We also work closely with the Office of Science and Technology at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Through creative programs, this office -- which is headed by the Science and Technology Adviser to the Administrator -- has greatly expanded the role of science and technology in addressing development challenges of the poorest countries.
In talking with representatives of many countries about science and technology over the past year, I have been struck by the fact that nearly every country has put at the very top of its agenda the role of science and technology for supporting innovation and economic development. This observation has been true for countries at every level of development -- not only for countries like Germany, Japan, China, India, Brazil, South Korea, and Singapore -- but also for countries like Mexico, Colombia, Chile, South Africa, Indonesia, Czech Republic, Malaysia, and Vietnam. They are all seeking advice on the right policies and investments that can help their societies to become more innovative and competitive to ensure a more prosperous future for their citizens.
Why does every country now have a “laser-like” focus on improving its capabilities in science, technology, and innovation in order to be more competitive in this globalized, interconnected world? My guess is that these countries see two trends clearly: (1) science and technology have a major impact on the economic success of leading companies and countries and (2) the scientific and technological revolution has been accelerating. If countries do not become more capable in science and technology, they will be left behind. The upside is great if they can capitalize on the transformative potential of new and emerging technologies. As one example, the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution has shown the potential for developing countries to use new technologies to “leap frog” over the development paths taken by developed countries, such as with mobile phones in Africa.
Countries also recognize that almost every issue with which they are confronted on the national, regional, and global level has an important scientific and technological component. This is true whether the issue concerns health, environment, national security, homeland security, energy, communication, food, water, climate change, disaster preparedness, or education. Countries know they have smart, creative, entrepreneurial people. They believe their people can compete, even from a distance, if the right investments are made and the right policies are implemented. And they know that to become more capable in science and technology and to create innovation and knowledge-based societies, they must collaborate with the world leaders in science and technology.
New and emerging technologies have also affected the trajectory of fundamental science and engineering research by creating new capabilities for exploring and understanding the natural world. We are only at the beginning of exploiting the potential of these new capabilities. This is another reason for the acceleration of the scientific and technological revolution, progressing at such an incredibly rapid pace that it is hard to imagine, much less predict, what new transformative possibilities will emerge within a decade. Scientists are not much better at predicting the future than anyone else. As renowned computer scientist Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
How have these developments affected science diplomacy? For the U.S. and Germany, science has become a strategic asset for our diplomacy because all countries want to engage with our scientists and engineers, with our universities and research laboratories, and with our high technology companies. They want to see how we innovate and how we connect research and development to the productive sector. This desire is true even for countries where governmental relations are strained or non-existent. So my colleagues and I spend much of our time in dialogues with other countries about how to stimulate innovation from science and technology.
The fundamental principles describing what to do to spur innovation are generally well understood, but complicated to implement. These principles are clearly described in a report entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering in 2005.(1) The report was initiated by a bipartisan request of the U.S. Congress asking what the U.S. should do to ensure it would be able to compete in the 21st century and produce good jobs and a high standard of living for our citizens. The expert committee that wrote the report included leaders of industry, presidents of research universities, and Nobel Prize laureates. Many of the recommendations in this report were enacted in legislation through the America Competes Acts of 2007 and 2010.
The report’s recommendations for the U.S. government are grouped into four areas. All four require additional investments and improved policies, which are relevant for any country that wishes to enhance its science, technology, and innovation. The first is to improve and strengthen the primary and secondary educational system, when children first enter grade school through high school, so that more students are not only well trained in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering and the scientific way of thinking, but also interested in pursuing careers that depend on these disciplines. The second is to provide more support for undergraduate and graduate students at universities and for students at vocational schools who pursue advanced training in science and engineering. The third is to provide more support for research and development in universities and national laboratories. The fourth is to build stable and supportive government policies that facilitate, rather than retard, building an innovative ecosystem and culture of innovation in society.
Building human capacity is the key element in creating an innovative society. We have turned off too many young people from science by teaching in boring ways – emphasizing memorization of facts rather than teaching by inquiry – and by having too many teachers in the early grades who are not adequately trained in the sciences and mathematics. Also essential are strong research universities and laboratories that carry out fundamental research funded by multiple government agencies. Many U.S. research universities have created interdisciplinary research centers with government and industry support, requiring expertise from a range of scientific and engineering disciplines focusing on fundamental research in areas that are important for future advances and applications, such as in biotechnology, nanotechnology, smart grid, secure computing, synthetic biology, and robotics. These interdisciplinary research centers help to carry on the legacy of institutions like Bell Labs that contribute so greatly to innovation in the 20th century, a story that is well told in the recent book “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”(2)
The importance of the private sector in research and development and in the innovation system cannot be overestimated. Seventy percent of the research and development in the U.S. occurs in the private sector, carried out by R&D facilities in our large companies and by entrepreneurs and innovators in small to medium-size companies building on more basic research funded by government. An innovative ecosystem also requires policies that promote efficient markets, strong intellectual property protection, venture and risk capital investors, angel investors, and foreign direct investment and trade. Further required is the free exchange of information in fundamental research, tax policies that promote innovation and private sector investment, enabling infrastructure investments by government, and bankruptcy policies that permit second chances. Additionally important are policies that encourage university faculty to start small companies to exploit promising ideas; immigration policy that attracts the best and brightest from other countries; and government programs that encourage entrepreneurs, help to accelerate innovation through open competitions and prizes, and support research and development by small entrepreneurial companies.
Let me now return to science diplomacy, which depends on a country having an innovative ecosystem. Some of the greatest science diplomacy assets for the U.S. and Germany are our non-governmental scientific institutions and people. I will give some examples familiar to me, beginning with two individuals who were mentors. They were great scientists who also made significant contributions to science diplomacy. Neither ever worked inside the government. One is Paul Doty, Professor of Biochemistry at Harvard who died in 2011 at the age of 91. He was a world-class biochemist who served on President Kennedy’s science advisory committee. He devoted much of his career in trying to reduce the risk of nuclear war through engaging with Soviet scientists about nuclear arms control. He created the Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Program in Science, Technology, and Humanism of the Aspen Institute – two places where I worked with him. He served for many years on the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the NAS. This committee was the main “back channel” for communication between American and Soviet scientists on arms control during the height of the cold war. The Soviet scientists involved in these dialogues later became the key scientific advisors to Gorbachev, and their influence helped achieve the breakthroughs that occurred in arms control between these two countries. Nobel Laureate Jim Watson said of Paul: “His strength was in never wanting power.” He was an academic scientist who made seminal contributions to science diplomacy.
Another individual is Sherwood Rowland, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and Professor at the University of California at Irvine who died in 2012. Sherry received the Nobel Prize with Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen. They discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols could destroy the earth’s protective ozone layer and thereby create a potentially grave environmental problem. There were many critics of the work – both from industry and academia – until it was vindicated and proven correct. Sherry successfully advocated for a ban on CFCs that was achieved with the 1987 Montreal Protocol Treaty. I worked with Sherry when he served as the NAS Foreign Secretary for eight years. He used science and technology and his worldwide reputation to advance relations between the U.S. and other countries. He was treated like a “rock star” when travelling overseas. He helped to create the InterAcademy Panel of science academies around the world, which fosters the scientific capacity of academies in developing countries.(3) He was a scientist who viewed scientific knowledge as a means for protecting our planet and improving lives of people everywhere.
Non-governmental institutions are also critically important to science diplomacy. The U.S. National Academies -- which includes the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council -- collaborate bilaterally and multilaterally with scientific academies and scientific organizations around the world to provide independent, expert advice to governments and international organizations on important global issues. The goal is not only to make progress on solving problems that countries face, but also to help scientific organizations around the world become more important advisers to their governments.
The American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) has created a Center for Science Diplomacy that has focused on scientific communication with countries where the U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations.(4) The AAAS has engaged with North Korea and Cuba, and was among the first to engage with Burma. Both the AAAS and the NAS have engaged with Iran; in fact, the NAS has been conducting workshops and exchanges with the Iranian scientific community for over a decade. Science cannot break down all the barriers, but when a window of opportunity emerges in governmental relations, the existing scientific contacts can be a great asset, as was the case for U.S. relations with both China and Russia. The U.S. State Department has always encouraged our non-governmental scientific organizations to maintain contact and communications with scientists in countries where diplomatic relations do not exist.
Private foundations have also played a significant role. As an important recent example, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has partnered with South Africa to create a fundamental science research center called KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (KRITH) in Durban to focus on solving the critical health problem of joint HIV and TB infections.(5) Durban is the epicenter of this pandemic, and HHMI has committed over $70 million for KIRTH. The research center works with the local university and hospitals in Durban and has attracted researchers from around the world. It has build considerable good will between the U.S. and South Africa. The Gates Foundation is another example of utilizing science to solve health problems facing developing countries, and has directed enormous resources and expertise at these issues. The foundation has provided support for a decade to the NAS and Institute of Medicine to help science academies in Africa to become more important advisers to their governments on health issues. The Humboldt Foundation, which was established by the German federal government, is another great example of an organization pursuing science diplomacy through collaborations in fundamental science and engineering. The many Humboldtians around the world are an important scientific network as well as a bridge between Germany and other countries.
Research universities in the U.S. and Germany are very international and build linkages between countries. The international collaborations are not only those initiated by individual faculty, but also strategic engagements made by university leaders and partly financed via university funds. It is hard to keep track of all the international engagements that our major research universities are undertaking. And it is important to remember that one of the greatest diplomatic initiatives of our two countries has been attracting the best and brightest from around the world for graduate education and research. This is something that the Humboldt Foundation does exceedingly well.
In my conversations with representatives of other countries about the role of science and technology in society, there are two areas where I try to gently lobby. The first is to encourage every government to seek the independent advice of its non-governmental scientific community on public policy issues where scientific and technical insights are relevant. The goal is for a country to have high quality, objective, and credible scientific advice – free of politics and special interests, independent of government control, and conveyed to the public as well as to the government. In their decisions, political leaders necessarily incorporate value judgments and other considerations that go beyond science, but objective scientific advice may help lead to wiser decisions. It is in everyone’s interest for all countries to have decisions informed by the best scientific information, conveyed transparently, without bias, and with accurate representation of scientific uncertainties.
The second area where I lobby is for governments to consider creating opportunities for young scientists, engineers, and medical professionals to have an opportunity to experience working in government. My office is the steward of several outstanding fellowship programs that bring science and engineering PhDs to work at the State Department. Over forty fellows sponsored by the AAAS are currently in their first or second year in the State Department, and approximately sixty former fellows have become regular civil service or foreign service employees. Wherever I have gone at the State Department, I have found either current or former fellows. They have permeated the Department, greatly added to the science and technology human capacity, and formed a network outside of the hierarchy. The same is true for AAAS fellows working at USAID. The Jefferson Science Fellows Program, which was initiated by one of my predecessors eight years ago, brings senior tenured faculty to work for a year in the Department or USAID. Jefferson fellows continue to serve as resource experts after returning to their universities. Twelve Jefferson fellows are serving this year. Two professional societies – the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) – bring several fellows each year as well. My office is staffed almost entirely by current and former fellows. In fact, the current Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Kerri-Ann Jones; the current Science and Technology Adviser to the USAID Administrator, Alex Dehgan; and I are all former AAAS fellows. Fellows contribute to science diplomacy whether they stay in government or pursue careers outside of government.
Science diplomacy helps other countries to become more capable in science and technology. One might worry that this creates more capable competitors, but I believe that it is in the interest of advanced countries like the U.S. and Germany to have more knowledge-based societies worldwide that rely upon science. The only way to stay in the forefront of the scientific and technological revolution, which is where I want the U.S. to be, is to run faster and to work with the best scientists and engineers wherever they reside in the world. That is why I support more global scientific engagement by the U.S. with leading scientists and engineers around the world. It is also why I like the Humboldt Foundation’s philosophy of focusing on the best people in its funding decisions. The approach that I favor was captured well in the title of an article in the October 2012 issue of Scientific American: “A measure of the creativity of a nation is how well it works with those beyond its borders.”
I believe that the world has a special opportunity in this decade since so many countries are focusing on improving their capabilities in science and technology and are willing to make fundamental changes in investments and policies so they can build more innovative societies. If we can minimize wars and conflicts with skillful diplomacy, the potential is there for more rapid economic growth, faster expansion of the middle class, and increased democratic governance in many countries as well as increased trade between countries. This is an optimistic scenario. A range of future scenarios, including some that are quite pessimistic, are laid out in the report Global Trends 2030 published by U.S. National Intelligence Council in 2012.(6) I believe that we can make the hopeful scenario a reality. Science diplomacy is one of our most important tools in achieving the desired outcome.
Let me end with a sentiment that I learned from another mentor, Bruce Alberts. He is a distinguished biochemist at the University of California at San Francisco, former President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, former U.S. Science Envoy to Indonesia, and current Editor of Science Magazine. He has emphasized that the values and ethics that come from doing science are congruent with democratic values. Both the scientific revolution and the democratic revolution grew out of the Enlightenment. Science values the individual, relies on freedom of inquiry and the entrepreneurial spirit, rewards excellence and merit, bases decisions on evidence, supports academic freedom, relies on peer review, and encourages transparency via publication. Science is also an agent of change, is an equalizing force in society, works for the common good, and is a source of optimism about the future. So the ultimate connection between science and diplomacy is shared values, which is the fundamental reason why science diplomacy is a strategic asset for democratic countries.
Bruce Alberts often quotes the great scientist-humanist Jacob Bronowski from lectures delivered at Harvard and published in the book “Science and Human Values” (1956). I will quote only one sentence among the many memorable lines in the book: “Men have asked for freedom, justice, and respect precisely as the scientific spirit has spread among them.”