Recent Testimony on Science Diplomacy by the NSF Director

It isn’t often that a you hear about science diplomacy being discussed at the highest levels.  Earlier this month the Director of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Arden L. Bement, testified before the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education on the importance and value of science diplomacy.

Scientists have played an important role on the front-lines of U.S. diplomacy since the end of World War II. They have been the enablers of larger international diplomacy efforts, from the robust scientific exchange with China to renewed and strengthened relations with Egypt, India, and Pakistan–all started with the peaceful beachhead of scientific diplomacy.

For instance, polls indicate that people in the Middle East generally view American S&T more favorably than other aspects of our society. This approving attitude provides for favorable forums to explain other aspects of American policies and actions. Our nation’s citizens also benefit directly from S&T cooperation, as it provides our scientists and engineers with greater access to cutting-edge research and allows us to work across geographical boundaries to solve global problems.

In addition, globalization has amplified the worldwide competition for ideas, science and engineering (S&E) talent, and leadership in turning new knowledge into real-world applications. Many nations are accelerating their investments in research and development, education, and infrastructure in order to drive sustained economic growth. To continue being a global leader in S&T, we must ensure that we have access to discoveries being made in every corner of the world.

International collaboration in S&E is a necessary foundation for the future. In order for the United States to be competitive in this new global society, we must engage in international research. And, we must proactively develop a workforce that is adept at working on international research teams. …

We will continue to leverage our broad mission to catalyze international research endeavors in all disciplines and to train an internationally engaged S&E workforce. We will also continue to leverage science and engineering know-how and the NSF model to catalyze larger diplomatic efforts.

Working with foreign scientists, as well as their communities, either here or abroad, not only taps into and develops additional research and development capacity, it also promotes changes in commercial, academic, infrastructure, and legal system that form the foundation of democratic institutions, a potential win-win for people and societies and science & technology (and education). 

This exchange is bilateral.  It creates knowledge and awareness for farmers to increase quality and yield of crops and livestock, helps create early warning, monitoring, and response systems for pandemics and other health issues, creates real educational opportunities, and improves the quality life through basic infrastructure projects such as water, electricity, and sewage.  In other words, S&T&E is essential to state-building, denying sanctuary to criminals and terrorists, and supporting national security objectives.

Dr. Bement is spot on, but the whole of government isn’t, not surprisingly, on board.  There are concerns in at least one government Department that labeling engagement with foreign scientists makes it a manipulative and potentially dissuasive relationship.  No, it’s not State.  They’ll participate in exchanges and outreach but do not label it as science diplomacy or talk about it as such for the reasons I just mentioned. 

We need somebody onboard that will help coordinate American public diplomacy, in all its different forms.  If only we had somebody on deck