Diplomacy of Deeds: the Center for Science Diplomacy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science

An Interview with Director Vaughan Turekian

bridges vol. 20, December 2008/ Feature Article

By Caroline Adenberger

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Dr. Alan Leshner (on the far left) speaks up for science diplomacy.

On July 15, 2008, during a hearing before the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, Dr. Alan Leshner testified about the role that US non-governmental organizations play in cultivating, promoting, and coordinating international science and technology cooperations.  Leshner, who is the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of the AAAS journal, Science, argued for the use of international scientific cooperation to foster communication and cooperation among people of diverse nations and to promote greater global peace, prosperity, and stability.

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Science is, by definition, global in scope and application. Science knows no borders, it is not constrained by geography, and no country has a monopoly on it. International scientific cooperation advances both science and the broader relationships among partner countries. Such cooperation serves an important role in initiating relationships, building trust, and expanding understanding between countries and societies. It comes as no surprise that science diplomacy is receiving more and more attention in both the scientific and the international relations communities.

However, as Leshner pointed out, subtle distinctions exist between science diplomacy conducted by governments and science diplomacy carried out by non-governmental organizations - although each form should complement and benefit the other. A recent Congressional Research Service Report, "Science, Technology, and American Diplomacy: Background and Issues for Congress" by Deborah Stine, published May 2008, highlights how science and technology can be used effectively by government agencies as a diplomatic or foreign policy tool to help foster another country's development and/or to increase understanding of US values and ways of doing business.

Science diplomacy as used by non-governmental institutions usually tries to maintain links of communication and cooperation among the citizens of countries when their governmental relationships are otherwise strained or limited. In addition, non-governmental science diplomacy can help build relationships among civil society entities to foster closer people-to-people relationships, whether governmental relationships are good or strained.

Leshner closed his testimony by announcing the new Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS. Guided by the overarching goal of using science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding and prosperity - following the AAAS mission "to advance science and serve society throughout the world" - it offers a forum through which scientists, policy analysts, and policy makers can share information and explore collaborative opportunities. According to its web site, the center is particularly interested in identifying opportunities for science diplomacy to serve as a catalyst for cooperation between societies where official relations might be limited, and to strengthen civil society interactions through partnerships in science and technology.

Dr. Vaughan Turekian

bridges spoke with Dr. Vaughan Turekian, the center's first appointed director. Turekian who, as chief international officer of AAAS, led a broad range of the organization's international activities, worked both at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Department of State (DoS) prior to joining AAAS. He served as special assistant to the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, where he was lead advisor on international science, technology, environment, and health issues - including clean energy, sustainable development, climate change, scientific outreach, and avian influenza. At NAS, Turekian worked as study director for the White House-requested NAS report on climate change science and has published numerous articles on the linkages between science and international policy.

bridges: What led AAAS to the decision to add a Center for Science Diplomacy to its existing centers?

Turekian: One of the key roles of AAAS is to bridge the science-society gap to help bring science into society. In international relations, given the current chaotic world situation, there is real value in trying to identify mechanisms that bring people from different backgrounds together. And from an AAAS perspective, the role of science and scientific cooperation is critical to reaching this goal. As the world's largest multidisciplinary scientific society, with about one out of five members coming from outside the United States, AAAS has a massive resource base for action. Our diverse membership enables us to engage stakeholders from all regions and areas of expertise to promote and sustain a robust dialogue with the global community.

The idea for establishing this center developed during a number of internal discussions and activities. For example, Norm Neureiter has been active in this field since the Cold War. I was strongly involved in science diplomacy not only when I was at the State Department, but also outside of government, trying to bring scientists into communication with each other and building bridges with society. Those first discussions led to bigger conversations with our chief executive officer Alan Leshner, who considered science diplomacy one of the focal areas for AAAS efforts.

When Alan made the official announcement establishing the center during  congressional testimony in July 2008, it became clear that this center could bring together not only the scientific and public policy communities, but also the foreign policy community, the international relations community, and the broader community of people interested in how to better engage people. The center offers great promise for all stakeholders.

bridges: What are the major differences between science diplomacy as conducted by governmental institutions, and science diplomacy pursued by a non-governmental institution like AAAS?

Turekian: At AAAS, we view diplomacy in the broadest possible framework. Diplomacy represents interaction between societies. There is public diplomacy, there is official diplomacy between governments, and there is unofficial diplomacy - and the linkages between all of them are very important.

Each of those has its own purposes and goals. While science can contribute to any of those forms of diplomacy, we believe that engagement with civil society builds the most sustainable linkages between societies. People-to-people contacts take place whether governmental relationships are good, or strained, or even absent. Science cooperations can play a critical role in setting the long-term framework for whatever might take place down the road, or is already taking place in the official dialog. Science can encourage governments to think about ways of working together.

bridges:  What is your vision for the center?

Turekian: The center can provide a place for people to come together to discuss lessons learned, experiences, challenges, barriers to promoting science as a valuable way of engagement, and how to achieve engagement among societies and countries. In many ways, the center is trying to bring together the various communities to think about and share experiences and to see what barriers exist. As we get a better understanding of those barriers, we hope also to find solutions.

bridges:  Can you just give us a little insight into the daily activities of the center?

Turekian: Currently, we're focusing on three activities: One is to analyze current and past domestic and international science diplomacy efforts and learn from those that have succeeded; we also try to identify major barriers to successful science diplomacy, such as educational and human resource issues, funding problems, or other policy issues; and third, our efforts concentrate on leveraging already existing connections to build new partnerships with appropriate stakeholders in both scientific and international affairs communities. Our goal is to develop new initiatives and to expand ongoing successful ones.

At some point soon, we will start a series of symposium lectures focused on a particular world region. By bringing together scientists who have been to that region, and foreign policy experts familiar with the lay of the land in that region, we can have a dialogue about how to better bring science cooperation into the relations.

Looking back in history: What would you consider an important successful lesson of science diplomacy?

Turekian: I think that one of the earliest examples of good science diplomacy happened between the US and Japan. It started in the early 1960s, when concern arose among the foreign policy community that there was an increasing rift between the academic communities in Japan and the academic communities in the US. The concern was that, over time, this would contribute to an even greater chasm between the two countries.
When Kennedy became president, he appointed Edwin Reischauer as US ambassador to Tokyo. Reischauer had authored the 1960 essay raising the issues of that "broken dialogue" between the two nations. During President Kennedy's first trip to Tokyo, in 1961, he set up a number of foreign policy mechanisms with Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda to avoid further divergence of the two cultures. One mechanism was a bilateral Cooperative Science Agreement between the two countries, which designated the National Science Foundation on the US side and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science on the Japanese side, to implement the agreement and facilitate interactions between the scientific communities. What lessons were learned from this historical example? At the time, there was surely some skepticism about the agreement. World War II had ended only 15 years before, and the Japanese scientific community at that time was less robust than the US scientific community. People asked: Why are you focusing on science in the diplomatic efforts?  But by starting off very slowly and identifying some really good programs and projects that could take place, as Japan developed economically and scientifically the interactions became almost seamless. There was no need to force collaboration, because collaborations were natural. Jumping forward in time:  An interesting event recently is that the 2008 Nobel Prize in physics, just announced, was shared by two Japanese researchers based in Japan, and one Japanese researcher based in the US. To me, this is a wonderful testimony that science diplomacy not only helps building sustainable relationships, but also ultimately helps in science. And it needs patience - one might not see an immediate result, but it takes some time.

Where do you identify the strengths and the weaknesses of such formal international S&T agreements between and among countries?

Turekian: Science and technology agreements form the backbone of many efforts to incorporate science into broader diplomatic relationships between and among countries. They are a magnificent way to put a high political profile on a particular topic. Unfortunately, there are numerous examples in which signing the agreement occurred with great fanfare and a very political focus including senior levels and government, but subsequent lack of funding diminished the ability to continue, as well as the strength and the potential benefits of the agreement.

But money is always an issue. It's always difficult have any form of cooperation when no money is available on one side or the other. You can have a lot of conversations, but ultimately you have to get down to the level of actually providing funding to do things together, and deciding what kind of financial mechanism would be the best way to facilitate science cooperations.

What are other challenges the center will focus on?

Turekian: A critical area to look into is the challenge of mobility of scientists. Immigration policies, particularly, can create barriers in terms of the ease of bringing people back and forth.

Another challenge is the question of how to make more scientific communities aware of the types of opportunities that already exist.

bridges: What would be your wish list - or to-do list - for the 111th Congress and President-elect Obama, with regard to science in the international context?

Turekian: We have benefited greatly from the fact that those we've talked to on the Hill about science diplomacy - both Democrats and Republicans - have strongly supported us. That kind of leadership, especially by Chairman Baird, Congressman Ehlers and Congressman Carnahan, and that kind of focus have been critical to raising the understanding that this is not just a science issue but has a great impact on society. This is very important, because Congress is by nature strongly linked to its constituents, to society.

I would hope, and I anticipate, that we are going to see a very strong recognition by both the incoming administration and by leaders in Congress that, from the US perspective, science and scientists continue to be one of our great ways of engaging with the world.

The scientific approach speaks to many underlying values and priorities of our country. And so, when we say that we care about things like the health of our people, we should also focus on the scientists who are helping achieve that. When we say we care about clean environment, scientists and technology are key elements of that.

We have so many great scientists and great innovators who have contributed greatly to our society. Just think of the Bill Gates, David Baltimore, Ahmed Zewail, Shirley Jackson, Susan Hockfield, John Holdren, Harold Varmus and so many other scientists and engineers, - all of them make fantastic goodwill - non governmental - ambassadors for the United States. These are people who demonstrate important values of this country. It's not just that the United States values athletes and entertainers, we value innovators and educators and researchers. That's one of the many ways that we should communicate with the world.