When Science Meets Diplomacy in a Globalized World - Dr. George Atkinson, Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State

by Jutta Kern

When Dr. Atkinson was appointed as Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State on September 23, 2003, he was only the second person ever to hold this position.  The post of a Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (STAS) was established in 2000 upon a National Research Council (NRC) report on S&T in foreign policy. Its mission is to serve as the principal liaison of the Department of State with the national and international scientific community. "Science provides opportunities but it still remains for the institutions of government and society in general to figure out how to use them," Dr. Atkinson is quoted in an October 22, 2003 Department of State (DOS) news release.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} George Atkinson came to the DOS in 2001 as the first American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) American Institute of Physics Senior Science Fellow. Ever since then, he has helped to increase the number of scientists on AAAS fellowships working with the DOS. Science fellows provide crucial expertise to the DOS since only a few U.S. foreign missions employ science officers—but science fellowships have evolved as a major instrument for the creation of sound science policy in general.

To sustain science expertise within the DOS, Dr. Atkinson also formulated the Jefferson Science Fellows Program. While, for example, the AAAS Congressional Science Fellowships are linking scientists with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the Jefferson Science Fellowships serve the diplomatic community at the DOS. "By helping to bridge the science and policy worlds, each fellow will alert the policy community to opportunities and challenges associated with longer-range, emerging, international scientific developments," the DOS describes the Jefferson Science Fellows Program, which shall define "a significant new relationship between the scientific community at U.S. universities and the U.S. Department of State."

With support from The MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, this program allows a senior faculty member to spend a year in Washington, D.C. to advise department officials on issues of interest to specific countries or world regions. After returning to academia, Jefferson Fellows remain available as consultants to the DOS for an additional five years.

During his appointment from 2000 to 2003, the first S&T Adviser, Dr. Norman Neureiter, started the initiative to integrate science, technology and health issues into U.S. foreign policy. Since then, the overall number of Science and Diplomacy Fellows in the DOS has tripled so that currently about forty Fellows are working in different Bureaus in the Department and also at foreign missions abroad.

During Dr. Atkinson's fellowship at the DOS, the formulation of the program entitled "Global Dialogue on Emerging Science and Technology (GDEST)" has been of particular interest. Administered by the National Academies with funding from the DOS, GDEST sponsors several conferences a year at venues outside the United States and focuses on S&T areas anticipated to have significant societal impact within the next decades. Dr. Atkinson is also one of the principal U.S. negotiators for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) program involving nuclear fusion energy.

As the S&T Adviser, George Atkinson also leads the Department-wide initiative "Science and Diplomacy: Strengthening State for the Twenty-First Century." The related memorandum was signed by then Secretary of State, Madeleine K. Albright, in 2000 and states that "if America is to continue to lead in the new century, then we must lead the way in integrating science in our diplomacy" and suggests to "move forward aggressively."

In his capacity as the S&T Adviser to the Secretary of State, one responsibility of Dr. Atkinson is the question of visas for foreign scientists and researchers, an issue of increasing concern among the scientific community. As a consequence of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, increased national security measures imposed enforced security checks and thus sometimes enormous delays in visa issuance for researchers and scientists from abroad. No wonder this question lingers at any given meeting the DOS organizes for the international diplomatic community. Dr. Atkinson, however, addresses this rather touchy issue on a regular basis openly and candidly. The fact that Dr. Atkinson is a scientist by profession certainly makes one believe that he speaks from personal experience and concern when telling a Science Diplomats Club Meeting in June, that the DOS "is aware that there is a great need for adjustment and we are working on solutions that will be announced soon."

Dr. Atkinson, who is professor of both Chemistry and Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona (on leave), holds a B.S. from Eckerd College and a Ph.D. from Indiana University. From 1971 to 1973, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. His impressive scientific record shows more than 170 publications in referred scientific journals and books. Dr. Atkinson holds more than sixty-six U.S. and foreign patents and is the recipient of the Senior Alexander von Humboldt Award (Germany), the Senior Fulbright Award (Germany), the Lady Davis Professorship (Israel) and the SERC Award (Great Britain). As a visiting professor at distinguished universities and research institutions in Japan, Great Britain, Germany, Israel and France, Dr. Atkinson gained valuable international experience, which certainly fosters a close understanding of the world of diplomacy. "As the last couple of decades have passed, particularly because I have lived overseas as a scientist, I have found myself more and more interested in how the continuing development of science, and the technologies which emanate from it, is integrated into our way of life," Dr. Atkinson explains his motivation in a 2003 DOS news release.

"Sound advice will remain unheard," a proverb reminds us, "if it doesn't find the right tone." There is certainly no doubt about the scientific soundness of Dr. Atkinson's advice—on top of that, however, several awards in recognition of his teaching, such as the "outstanding teacher at the University of Arizona" selected by students, give evidence that Dr. Atkinson also shows high mastery in conveying the message.

Contact:George H. Atkinson, Ph.D.
Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, D.C. 20520