Mark Jansson
Photo credit: Compliance & Capacity Skills International

From Water to Weapons: Science Diplomacy in Practice

#SciDipTurns10 Yemen nonproliferation Water Broader Middle East and North Africa East Asia

Many of the most important issues facing our planet that demand science diplomacy (e.g., climate change, public health, and arms proliferation) have not changed since my piece describing a pilot project to help address the water crisis in Yemen was published 10 years ago.1 Unfortunately, Yemen continues to suffer from the same political divisions that have impeded the development of sustainable, science-based solutions to its food, water, and energy problems that were the focus of our initial engagement effort.

Scientists have a unique vantage point to understand that Yemen’s challenges are acute but not unique. Collaboration between scientists can help moderate relationships between countries and address problems without waiting for political storms to pass. There are also subtle ways in which the scientific and policy communities can work more effectively together.

Our experience at the Federation of American Scientists 10 years ago was that Yemenis were delighted to engage with Americans in conversations that didn’t start with the word “terrorism” while the Al Qaida threat loomed large in the U.S. public consciousness. I therefore took some issue with Secretary Clinton’s World Water Day remarks connecting water security to terrorism in my original article.

It remains my belief that more productive efforts can be supported and sustained without securitizing water in a situational, self-serving way. With the Al Qaida threat less on the mind in 2022, Yemen is not mentioned by name in the Biden-Harris White House Action Plan on Global Water Security.

Nonproliferation has been the primary focus of my work since 2012. Collaborative projects on topics such as nuclear forensics and on nontechnical subjects involving scientists do not grab headlines.  They involve communication with law enforcement, setting security culture at nuclear facilities, and regulation, as well as how to inform export control and sanctions compliance efforts. Such projects quietly yield tangible and important benefits in the form of information-sharing, skill-building, and the creation of professional networks among stakeholders.

These benefits could be better captured with more innovative approaches to monitoring and evaluation. Creativity in this space could lead to less conservative, workshop-happy programmatic implementation strategies that more prominently feature a mixture of pilot projects and long-term country engagement initiatives.

On more high-profile proliferation challenges, such as with Iran and North Korea, technical experts continue to play an essential role in informing diplomatic efforts. There are times, however, when the policy discussion appears to be unhelpfully dominated by worst-case-scenario estimates derived from number crunching about separative work units or possible uses of rather nondescript buildings. Consumers of technical analyses therefore owe it to the providers to continually improve their scientific and technological literacy and ask informed questions. 

The importance of science in building policy solutions is increasing and will continually benefit from cultivation of insights on the various ways that the concept of science diplomacy can be translated into practice.


  1. Mark Jansson and Charles D. Ferguson, “Building a New Foundation with Yemen: An International Science Partnership,” Science & Diplomacy, Vol. 1, No. 3 (September 2012).
Capacity Building and Development Mechanisms A Decade of Science & Diplomacy