Charles Wardell Stiles
Zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles, the first to hold the title “science attaché” at a U.S. embassy, was stationed in Berlin, Germany, in 1898. The Department of State should again make use of professional scientists in overseas posts.

Diplomacy for Science Two Generations Later

United States U.S. Department of State Americas

In his 1955 article Why Science Attachés?, former science attaché Robert Loftness illustrated the importance of the science attaché program as a method to engage with foreign scientists and promote U.S. diplomatic objectives overseas.1 Within the program, a scientist served as an advisor to an ambassador, reporting on scientific developments abroad while acting as a spokesperson for the U.S. scientific field. For Loftness, science attachés were a major conduit to promote diplomatic objectives through scientific collaborations, a process known today as “science for diplomacy.” Despite its early success in promoting diplomatic cooperation, the U.S. embassy science attaché program was all but eliminated as a permanent position by the mid-1990s as a consequence of ongoing national efforts to reduce public expenditures. However, as the landscape of science policy issues has evolved tremendously since then, the need for science diplomacy has become even more important. Science is becoming more integral to international policy for several reasons: it is increasingly globally interconnected (to technological and economic competitiveness and overall societal development); there has been a rise in global environmental and technological threats; research and development centers outside the United States have gained significance; there is an increase in the proportion of research being generated through small collaborative agreements rather than through large, centralized research organizations; and there is a need for an internationally knowledgeable workforce.

U.S. embassies can play a greater role in helping American scientists to participate in  international collaborations by acquiring and providing essential information about their host nation’s science culture and practices, as well as supporting collaborative activities and participating in international organizations.

U.S. embassies can play a greater role in helping American scientists to participate in international collaborations by acquiring and providing essential information about their host nation’s science culture and practices

Reinstituting the science attaché program and other efforts aimed at promoting science diplomacy offers some tangible benefits. In decades past, science attachés, with PhDs in the sciences and operating within the U.S. Department of State, focused on the notion of science for diplomacy. Today the nature of global challenges alongside the sheer scientific potential that may arise through international collaboration has driven an expanded opportunity and need for “diplomacy for science.” Such diplomacy increasingly has important knowledge foundations with technological, economic, and societal implications. In such a context, U.S. embassies can play a greater role acquiring information regarding the host nation’s scientific priorities and its science culture in order to better inform potential scientific collaborators within the United States. This would help to streamline and enhance the approach for American innovators, businesses, and scientists to engage with their foreign counterparts, advancing scientific and diplomatic goals simultaneously.

Since the first U.S. science attaché was appointed to a post in Germany in 1898, as shown in the figure below,23 recurring calls for science engagement for advancing diplomatic goals—and vice versa—have continued to fuel the field of science diplomacy.456 Loftness asserted that the interrelationship between foreign policy and science was a natural one with regard to both basic and applied sciences. Recent calls for heightened efforts in diplomacy for science have emphasized the need for diplomatic personnel overseas to work with international scientists to join resources and address barriers to international scientific collaboration.78 U.S. embassies today typically employ Environment, Science, Technology and Health (ESTH) officers—career foreign service officers with no formal scientific training who focus primarily on priority policy issues, such as climate change, energy security, and biodiversity protection.

Despite the discontinuation of the science attaché program, the potential for scientists to play a greater role in U.S. foreign policy has been part of the basis for the establishment of several other programs, including the U.S. Department of State’s Embassy Science Fellows in 2001 and the White House’s Science Envoy Program in 2009.910 These efforts bring scientists to specific embassies to discuss individual scientific concerns in a time frame ranging from a few weeks to three months. These programs serve the important purpose of raising awareness and public support for various international science ventures, yet they are limited in scope and time to allow the participants to develop strong scientific ties between the United States and its host country. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Science & Diplomacy), through its Science and Technology Policy Fellowships, has been sending scientists to the Department of State (AAAS Diplomacy Fellowships) for one- to two-year rotations since 1980. These science fellows focus on a specific set of science policy issues, as opposed to the wide assortment of interests required of a centralized science attaché. While U.S. technical agencies and government departments such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Health and Human Services, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Department of Defense-related organizations—Office of Naval Research Global, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Army Research Office—have overseas presence, these are targeted to specific areas of interest or are in only a few countries. For example, the NASA attachés at the U.S. embassy in Moscow are responsible for addressing a relatively complex U.S.–Russian interaction related to the International Space Station.

While these programs have resulted in raised awareness, heightened mutual understanding, and advancement of a variety of scientific issues, the reinstitution of appointments longer than one year in a centralized manner, such as those enabled by the original science attaché program, would greatly assist the Department of State and other agencies in keeping pace with the evolving nature of applied, analytical science as well as the need to bring scientists together to resolve the novel and emerging problems of the day. Specifically, reinstating science attachés, perhaps as permanent positions within U.S. embassies or using a model similar to the Embassy Science Fellows program but for longer appointments and aimed at senior scientists, would help promote diplomacy for science by

  • providing broad and longitudinal surveys of science and technology fields, from discovery to innovation and commercialization of technological breakthroughs (complementing more focused programs by including broader science and technology trends, breakthroughs between predetermined areas of focus, and cause-and-effect longitudinal understanding);
  • covering geographical areas connected by common science and technology trends and programs using a holistic approach for the entire region;
  • investigating educational and training opportunities as compared to the resources available in the United States; and
  • supporting a database on regional science and engineering trends and national programs.

These new or expanded positions would help to address three key challenges faced by American scientists, businesses, and academic institutions.

First, there is a need for large-scale international collaborative projects such as space stations and laboratories, which have been an important focus of diplomacy for science efforts. Because science is an essential engine for economic growth, the Department of State’s efforts strengthen the economic and scientific potential of the United States and other countries. However, as scientists are traditionally trained to focus on a specific scientific problem and not the various managerial and diplomatic roles that are required for international collaboration, an attaché could serve as a resource for scientists by understanding the major scientific issues of the host country while ensuring that managerial and diplomatic goals are incorporated. In essence, a successful science attaché would require a wide breadth of knowledge across a wide field of scientific inquiry, yet also be able to act as a manager and diplomat by bringing different parties with similar interests together and promoting shared scientific goals. As such, the dual role of a science attaché being both an engaged scientist while staying attentive to political and diplomatic aims requires a central and consistent figure to further the success of international scientific missions.

Issues ranging from environmental protection and climate change to cybersecurity and energy security are inherently global in nature, and addressing them therefore requires international involvement.

Second, an increasing interconnectedness within international technological systems and industrial production has created issues that require collaborative solutions. Issues ranging from environmental protection and climate change to cybersecurity and energy security are inherently global in nature, and addressing them therefore requires international involvement. Enhancing connectivity and synergism among seemingly different technologies and communities to create added value is an essential, core opportunity for progress in the evolving knowledge society.11 An attaché or other science advisor within embassies could play a vital role as a primary point of contact to identify local experts within the host nation and promote international collaboration via knowledge of various funding sources and the regional scientific landscape. Additionally, an attaché could help promote collaboration and communication among foreign-based U.S. experts from different government agencies by identifying opportunities to engage in areas of common interest.

Third, obtaining timely information on and contacts for scientific breakthroughs, new research and development programs, and related technological developments is essential to operate at the cutting edge of scientific discovery. Scientific innovation is an ongoing process in virtually all fields across the globe, and a science advisor within embassies would have the technical expertise to assist embassy staff, such as the ESTH officers, to monitor and report on the implications of the myriad publications, projects, and breakthroughs. Acquiring such information in a timely manner is crucial for keeping up with fast-paced scientific innovation, where its delay or absence could result in missed opportunities to realize economic, technological, and even security capabilities.12 As such, a science attaché in an embassy would be well placed to monitor recent scientific events and report on key issues in a meaningful and rapid fashion. In addition, where ESTH officers regularly rotate across different countries, an attaché could provide some continuity during transition periods. By providing expertise within a specific nation’s science framework, an attaché could also help to bring together scientists who may not normally meet through traditional means due to language and cultural barriers.

By providing expertise within a specific nation’s science framework, an attaché could also help to bring together scientists who may not normally meet through traditional means due to language and cultural barriers.

Other nations have used science attachés in their embassies to notable effect. France has staffed several of its embassies with multiple science attachés and, alongside its U.S. partners, has engaged in various activities such as supporting Franco-American technology-based start-up companies.13 South Korea has sought to promote Korean–American scientific exchange on a variety of fields, while Turkey has just begun to expand its science attaché program in order to promote economic growth and technological innovation.14 The efforts of France, South Korea, Turkey, and other countries signal a growing international interest in scientific collaborations that bolster innovation capacity and economic growth, something that could be highly beneficial to U.S. scientific interests abroad.

Science attache timeline

While it is clear that reinstating the position of science attachés at U.S. embassies across the world would open significant opportunities, its implementation also raises mechanistic, management, and administrative questions. Recognizing that the roles of science attachés will depend on the specific geopolitical climate in which they are placed, two important issues that need to be addressed include funding and recruitment.

One potential mechanism is to extend the duration of the Embassy Science Fellows Program from a few months to allow for year-long assignments. This has already been informally discussed at some level both at the Department of State and at the NSF (which was one of the first agencies to participate about fifteen years ago). The cost on the part of the participating technical agency would be significant because it pays the salary, benefits, and per diem expenses of the fellow, where the Department of State provides only housing. As such, the larger burden of cost sharing rests not on the Department of State but on the participating agency, which needs to be convinced that the program advances its own mission as well. Another mechanistic option may be to use the science attaché appointments as a tool for the many Long Term (employee) Development Programs that exist in some science agencies.  For such an example in the NSF, this type of program allows scientists to take advantage of the Embassy Science Fellowships by exposing them to a new set of challenges within the U.S. government and enhancing their professional development. In addition, the Jefferson Science Fellowship administered by the U.S. National Academies, which brings established academics into the department and has typically not been used for foreign postings, could possibly also serve as a vehicle for high-profile appointments abroad in the future. For sustainable funding from outside the government, foundations and programs, such as Fulbright, and the private sector, such as industrial laboratories, should be considered.

Managing the activities of an attaché under a well-defined embassy reporting structure may be another challenge. An attaché is not a member of the foreign service and may even be from outside the government, such as from the academia or the private sector. This possibility creates both opportunities and challenges. Practicing scientists, especially high-profile scientists from academia, are culturally attuned to a totally different environment than the highly structured top-down bureaucracy of a diplomatic mission in which an attaché is expected to function. Nonetheless, a new work culture can indeed be cultivated by willing individuals. Those who recently served as (short-term) embassy science staff have widely varying experiences—while some were well integrated in the day-to-day activities of the section, others were less involved. For longer-term appointments, the issue could be compounded by the loss in close communication between the attaché and his parent scientific organization back in the United States.

These concerns would probably affect the recruitment of such individuals.  A sojourn abroad for several years could not only cause separation from the parent organization, but for those scientists active in research and scholarly work it may also mean severing themselves from such activities. The contribution to national interests notwithstanding, the professional cost may be perceived to be too high, especially as the attaché experience may not count toward career advancement. At the same time, highly accomplished scientists are likely to be more effective in foreign countries because of their own stature in the scientific community irrespective of their affiliation with the embassy. An early report on the science attaché program recommended creation of a separate cadre of foreign service scientists as a solution to some of the problems discussed here.15 Nearly fifty years later, the role of science in policy making is far greater, and that recommendation, adapted to proper circumstances, looks no less relevant.

Finally, rather than assigning science attachés to particular countries, a regional appointment system of attachés over groups of countries may be most probable by considering both the integration of regional needs and limited resources. An evaluation study of the regional opportunities and administrative solutions could provide timely answers to the issues raised above.

One of the first international efforts of President Barack Obama’s administration was to launch the Science Envoys program in several countries in North Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Europe.16 A more systemic and centralized approach to enlisting scientists at U.S. embassies can facilitate the coordination and communication necessary to meet the full potential for international collaboration and address the challenges of the global scientific problems facing the United States and other countries today by ensuring balanced coverage of topics, attention to a variety of regions, a focus on emerging technologies, and a combined approach of science for diplomacy with diplomacy for science. Experienced PhD-level scientists placed at embassies would bring the scientific knowledge and expertise needed to complement the skills of traditional diplomats filling the ESTH role. Reinstating the science attaché program is one of several methods by which the Department of State could more fully enhance a coordinated approach to promote diplomatic and scientific goals concurrently. This would fulfill the vision expressed by Loftness and many others over the past decades to reestablish a formal program to uphold the union of science and diplomacy, now with a central focus on serving the scientific endeavor in the United States.


  1. Robert Loftness, “Why Science Attachés?” Scientific Monthly 80 (1955): 124–127.
  2. Orio Ciferri, “For Science Attachés, It’s Pinstripes, Not Lab Coats,” The Scientist 1no. 14(1987): 6,
  3. Wilton Lexow, The Science Attaché Program (Washington, DC: CIA Historical Review Program, 1966),
  4. Robert Loftness, “Why Science Attachés?”
  5. Norman P. Neureiter, “Successes in Building International Bridges through Science,”in Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings, Tehran, Iran (2008), ed. Glenn Schweitzer and Yousef Sobouti (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2008),
  6. Kristin M. Lord and Vaughan C. Turekian, “Time for a New Era of Science Diplomacy,” Science 315, no. 5813 (2007): 769–70.
  7. Farouk El-Baz, “Science Attachés in Embassies,” Science 329, no. 5987 (2010): 13,
  8. David Malakoff, “Panel Calls for Science-Savvy Diplomats,” Science 281, no. 5385 (1998): 1937–39,
  9. The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy: Imperatives for the Department of State, National Research Council, Committee on Science and Health Aspects of the Foreign Policy Agenda of the United States (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1999),
  10. Ahmed H. Zewail, “Science in Diplomacy,” Cell 141 (2010),
  11. Mihail C. Roco and William S. Bainbridge, “The New World of Discovery, Invention and Innovation: Convergence of Knowledge, Technology and Society,” Journal of Nanoparticle Research 15, no. 1946 (2013),
  12. Leadership and Diplomacy Efforts to Foster Global Science and Engineering: Testimony Before the Committee on Research and Science Education, 110th Congress (2008) (statement of Arden L. Bement Jr., director of the National Science Foundation),
  13. The Innovation Team at the French Consulate in Boston,
  14. “Ministries join forces for science attachés abroad,” Hürriyet Daily News, April 5, 2012,
  15. Wilton Lexow, The Science Attaché Program.
  16. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” Cairo, Egypt (June 4, 2009),

Igor Linkov and Sankar Basu participated in the Science Fellows Program at the U.S. embassy in Berlin; their views and opinions within this article are derived from discussion and experience working with the U.S. embassy and Department of State personnel engaged in the program. Susan Gardner of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shared her past experience as acting director of the Office of Science and Technology Cooperation at the U.S. Department of State and helped in preparing this paper. Permission was granted by the chief of engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to publish this material. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the individual authors and not those of the U.S. Army, the National Science Foundation, or other sponsor organizations.

Diplomacy for Science Mechanisms Science in Diplomacy March 2014