FCO Office
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) main building in London. The author served as the FCO's first chief scientific adviser. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Arpingstone

A Scientist in the Foreign Office

United Kingdom Europe

On March 29, 2009, I heard the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown, give the Romanes Lecture in the historic Sheldonian Theatre at the University of Oxford. Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill are among those who have given this highly prestigious lecture. Brown chose the title “Science and Our Economic Future.” He gave the lecture in the middle of the economic crisis and he stated that “it is science above all that can give us hope.” He also announced that he was creating a new role of chief scientific adviser (CSA) to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), who would be involved in “bringing science to international policy making and diplomacy.”

A few days later, a search agency asked me if I would be interested in becoming this first CSA. Despite my presence at Brown’s lecture, the thought had not crossed my mind. However, as a working scientist and president of one of Oxford’s largest colleges (Magdalen), and having hosted many visits from important heads of states, ministers, and other notables from around the world, I was intrigued by the idea of applying this experience to work with the FCO on scientific diplomacy. I said I would be interested in this role providing it would not interfere with my work at Oxford. Accordingly, the FCO appointed me on a part-time basis for a fixed term of three years. I started in the summer of 2009.

Early in my term, I was pleased to help arrange for David Miliband, then foreign secretary, to give a speech on science diplomacy at the Royal Society. He cleverly compared the revolution in science in the twentieth century “from certainty to complexity” to developments in foreign affairs in the same period. Shortly after this, the coalition government was formed, and the new foreign secretary William Hague at once showed his commitment to science and innovation in several speeches given round the world.

I was delighted to be able to work with the UK Science and Innovation Network, which is a unique organization placing about ninety officers in UK embassies and high commissions in twenty-five countries. The network is involved with enhancing international relations through scientific collaborations between the UK and other countries. I was pleased to champion this organization’s excellent work and made visits to eighteen countries to promote its various projects. Scientific interactions with emerging economies were a priority. In Istanbul I launched a new Knowledge Partnership between the UK and Turkey together with Vince Cable, the UK secretary of state for business innovation and skills. In similar visits to Delhi, Medellín, Nanjing, Ottawa, Singapore, and other cities, I saw exciting collaborative scientific initiatives across the continents.

In Jordan I had the opportunity to visit the SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) project, which is a prime example of adventurous scientific diplomacy. As Chris Llewellyn Smith highlighted in a recent Science & Diplomacy article, the building of a new synchrotron facility in Jordan will enable scientists from many countries in the Middle East to do high-quality research in several scientific areas, including molecular biology, materials science, and archaeology. Bringing together countries such as Iran and Israel through the science of this project is a remarkable achievement. While an ambitious international scientific project such as this does present exceptional political and financial challenges, I was impressed with its progress and was an enthusiastic supporter of the project in the FCO.

The FCO administers several British Overseas Territories, and some of these have intrinsic scientific interest. I visited a British base in Antarctica to see its unique science, which is central to understanding climate change going back hundreds of thousands of years. Under the Antarctic Treaty, an individual can be in Antarctica only if he or she is doing science. Additionally, the extreme nature of the coldest and most remote continent ensures close collaborations between the many nations present there, a fine example of science diplomacy. My visit to the continent enabled me to become something of a spokesperson back in London for UK Antarctic research, which was under threat from financial cutbacks that have since been withdrawn. The British Indian Ocean Territory, situated one thousand miles south of Sri Lanka, is another remote place. About the size of France, it was declared a Marine Protected Area during my early days in the FCO. I formed the British Indian Ocean Territory Science Advisory Group to do marine scientific investigations in one of the most pristine and unexplored seas in the world.

Very few countries have an active scientist working as an adviser in a department of foreign affairs, and the UK experience offers some important lessons. The FCO is a huge organization. It covers more than 160 countries and employs more than ten thousand people, many of them located outside the UK. As with any newly created position in a large, established bureaucracy, my role as chief scientific adviser was a challenge. Making an impact right across the globe in a part-time position was not realistic, and, inevitably, it was necessary to set priorities to work on a limited number of projects.

However, I did find that the UK ambassadors and high commissioners were all enthusiastic when I visited the countries where they were based. Science is one area where the UK truly punches above its weight, and the ambassadors invariably liked to emphasize this point in their speeches. But science advisers are only one part of this activity. The involvement in international collaboration of a nation’s science community, including its institutions, academies, laboratories, and universities, is critical to the credibility and effectiveness of the process. 

I completed my stint in this fascinating role in 2013. I was pleased that the FCO decided that the experiment was worthwhile and has appointed a second chief science adviser with additional resources, including the appointment of a deputy. So I was delighted to hand the role over to Robin Grimes, an expert in nuclear materials science from Imperial College London, who will continue to bring UK science to international policy making and diplomacy. 

Diplomacy for Science Mechanisms Science for Diplomacy Science in Diplomacy September 2013