We are now confronting three daunting global crises: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the spiraling economic downturn, and the planet’s changing climate. At this point, the world desperately needs to be working together and looking to science and technology for facts about and solutions to these crippling situations. However, in the U.S., during the Trump administration, just the opposite occurred. With the incoming Biden administration, the U.S. must reimagine and rebuild the web of expertise, respect, and action that will define its commitment to science and diplomacy.
For years, the U.S. had been strengthening and deepening the interrelationship between science and diplomacy. Diplomacy serves science interests, and science serves diplomacy’s interests. Complex international research collaborations have depended on strong diplomatic connections and scientific collaboration has helped heal damaged international relationships.1 Strong diplomatic channels facilitate the flow of students, scientists and data between different countries, and science’s universal language can transcend political and cultural differences. An additional connection linking science and diplomacy, and the most critical, is the role of science in informing and shaping national and international policy. Together, these pieces define the partnership between science and diplomacy, constituting a solid base for progress.
While many parts of the U.S. scientific and diplomatic communities (academia, industry, non-governmental organizations) have been committed to maintaining their relationships with the rest of the world, the governmental foundation needed to sustain these connections and project the nation’s values has been weakened if not broken. Government is responsible for setting national and foreign policy, including supporting basic research and international cooperative research, defining the openness of borders, and establishing and maintaining membership in international organizations, agreements, and treaties. The U.S. government cannot conduct science and diplomacy on its own, but it can limit the effectiveness of this partnership and undermine its role.
The next phase of science and diplomacy in the U.S. will depend on how ably the nation can reassert its belief in science-based policy, how quickly it can renew the credibility of its federal scientific enterprise, and how well it can regain a trusted position on the world stage. What that position might be is a question for the future. This is a moment of getting back to basics as the U.S. has lost its moral authority and faith in some federal scientific institutions has been shaken.2
What must we do? First, re-establishing the national objective of science-based policy must become a highly visible central objective of the entire scientific community. Policymaking is a complicated political process in which strong interests vie for power. In the past, science has had a seat the policy table. Now we must reclaim that seat and endow it with genuine power. Science-driven policy needs to be at the heart of the U.S. science and diplomacy partnership. If the U.S. cannot re-establish itself as a nation striving for science-based policy, the future of U.S. science diplomacy will not stand on anything solid.
Second, the diplomatic corps must be rebuilt, and, in that rebuilding, more scientists must be present. During the last few years, the foreign service has suffered from a foreign policy that has withdrawn the U.S. from global engagement at a time when it was most needed, alienating allies and leaving a dangerous vacuum. Foreign service professionals have been undermined and disregarded, resulting in a reduced cadre of experts and an unappealing professional path.3
Diplomats and scientists share a deep yearning to understand the world and make it a better place. Both also share a very strong sense of professional identity, which can lead to an arrogant disregard for those not in their field. To build back the roots of science diplomacy, these two groups must develop a stronger respect for each other.
Recruits to the foreign service come to their careers with a range of backgrounds. It is imperative that more scientists consider a career in diplomacy. Such a career choice does not negate scientific training, but rather puts it to use in a realm where it is needed, contributing to the development of our foreign policy.
Third, those who find themselves in careers devoted to science diplomacy need to establish clear priorities. As we enter a period of limited resources, it is not the time for establishing new organizations, but rather strengthening existing ones, making them less bureaucratic, and more effective, and demonstrating their value.
Science diplomacy is evolving out of two very well-established fields. It has struggled to establish its identity sitting between such well-defined and very different cultures. It must see its role as a bridge between the two, enabling both to accomplish their objectives, revealing the compatibility of their objectives, or providing insights into their differences. It can do this by engaging with both the science and foreign policy communities, using its established networks and offering technical expertise to address key challenges – e.g., rebuilding trust in science and reconfirming our national commitment to science-based policy. Those with experience in science diplomacy should also consider how they can weave strengthened science partnerships into diplomatic relationships that need to be revitalized or rebuilt.
Science diplomacy must strengthen its role as a trusted partner to both science and diplomacy, not as a competitor but as a unique collaborator, recognizing that its expertise is its deep understanding and respect of both fields. At this unprecedented time, U.S. science diplomacy can play a leadership role as our nation strives to rebuild and address the current crises.
- Rush Holt and Sergio Jorge Pastrana, “Science Can Bring Cuba, U.S. Together,” Orlando Sentinel, March 22, 2016, https://orlandosentinel.com/opinion/os-ed-cuba-science-diplomacy-032216-20160321-story.html
- Jon Cohen, “The United States Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing – But Things May Soon Improve,” Science, February 28, 2020, https://sciencemag.org/news/2020/02/united-states-badly-bungled-coronavirus-testing-things-may-soon-improve; Brad Plumer and Coral Davenport, “Science Under Attack: How Trump is Sidelining Researchers and Their Work,” New York Times, December 28, 2019, https://nytimes.com/2019/12/28/climate/trump-administration-war-on-science.html
- William J. Burns, “The Demolition of US Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs, October 14, 2019, https://foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-10-14/demolition-us-diplomacy