By Lauren Wagner, Diplomatic Engagement Fellow, Meridian International Center
Climate change. Cybersecurity. Pandemics. Artificial Intelligence. What do all of these topics have in common?
For starters, these topics are some of the most prominent international issues of our time. Policymakers and diplomats across the globe are actively discussing ways to slow the climate crisis, strengthen national cybersecurity, mitigate the spread of infectious diseases, and leverage the power of AI as a force for good. But, in addition to being global issues of great importance, a critical commonality is that all of these matters will require the integration of evidence and perspectives from across many disciplines – in other words, tackling these challenges will require science diplomats.
“Science Diplomacy” is a relatively new term for a collection of not-so-new concepts:
it can refer to the use of scientific evidence in advancing diplomatic goals, such as in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959; the use of diplomacy to promote international scientific collaborations, a famous example being the International Space Station (a scientific collaboration, now between 15 nations, that began in 1984); among other intersections. Overlaps between science and diplomacy have existed for centuries – Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ first diplomatic envoys, is credited by the Department of State as the U.S.’s first science diplomat. But what does being a science diplomat in the twenty-first century mean? This job title, and the pathways that lead to it, can be vague and difficult to picture. Indeed, the job of a “science diplomat” can take many forms in many different sectors and levels of governance.
One commonality between various jobs in science diplomacy is the need to serve as an interpreter between science and international relations. Cutting-edge scientific research is typically published in academic journals like Nature and Science. It is written in style often inaccessible to most people – including diplomats and policymakers – who are not trained to decode the technical jargon in scientific literature. Researchers tend to speak in a language of their own, which makes it difficult for policymakers at any level to enact sound, evidence-based policies without the help of a science advisor.
The need for science advisors is no different in international policy. For example, the U.S. Department of State employs science advisors in many of its science-related bureaus to stay informed on technical details relating to climate policy, infectious diseases, nuclear policy, and more. Additionally, most large embassies and consulates employ science attachés, who perform a variety of functions, including advising the ambassador on issues relating to science and technology, facilitating bilateral scientific projects, assisting in the bilateral exchange of scientific information and personnel, and representing the scientific interests of their home country. Intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations employ or liaise with many scientists through agencies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Although job opportunities in science diplomacy are historically found within governmental and intergovernmental organizations, recent years have also seen a proliferation of science diplomacy jobs in the industrial and nonprofit sectors.
Diplomats indeed need scientists to tackle our world’s most consequential issues, but at the same time, researchers also need diplomats. The scientific process relies on vibrant collaborations and the free exchange of scientific information.
Many scientists who engage in projects with international collaborators pay little attention to the borders between their nations. Indeed, the beauty of research is its ability to bring people together across borders and languages to advance our collective knowledge. Scientists rely on diplomats to grease the wheels of such transnational relationships.
Perhaps most critically, diplomats can take action on science. With a thorough understanding of geopolitics and historical context, diplomatic envoys negotiate international regulations, build awareness, and help to mobilize other nations around key issues. Research is not worth much if its results cannot be used well, and diplomats play a pivotal role in putting scientific results into practice internationally.
Building bridges between science and diplomacy is more critical than ever. Luckily, career opportunities in science diplomacy are more plentiful than ever. Moreover, diplomats at all levels of the U.S. government agree about this need: As Susan Falatko, a Diplomat-in-Residence at the U.S. Department of State, recently stated, “Diplomats are out there talking to other countries about scientific issues… We need more scientists [out there] with a deeper understanding of these issues.”
Lauren Wagner is a Neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studies brain development and language acquisition in infants. Outside of the lab, Lauren is passionate about science diplomacy and science communication, and she is active in several organizations that promote science in society including the Meridian International Center, the National Science Policy Network, Knowing Neurons, and the Journal of Science Policy & Governance.