Science Savvy in Foreign Affairs

The Department of State must integrate science and technology expertise more completely into its staff and operations.

On September 18, 1997, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott gave a talk to the World Affairs Council of Northern California in which he observed that “to an unprecedented extent, the United States must take account of a phenomenon known as global interdependence . . . The extent to which the economies, cultures, and politics of whole countries and regions are connected has increased dramatically in the [past] half century . . . That is largely because breakthroughs in communications, transportation, and information technology have made borders more porous and knitted distant parts of the globe more closely together.” In other words, the fundamental driving force in creating a key feature of international relations–global interdependence–has been science and technology (S&T).

Meanwhile, what has been the fate of science in the U.S. Department of State? In 1997, the department decided to phase out a science “cone” for foreign service officers (FSOs). In the lingo of the department, a cone is an area of specialization in which an FSO can expect to spend most, if not all, of a career. Currently, there are five specified cones: administrative, consular, economic, political, and the U.S. Information Agency. Thus, science was demoted as a recognized specialization for FSOs.

Further, in May 1997 the State Department abolished its highest ranking science-related position: deputy assistant secretary for science, technology, and health. The person whose position was eliminated, Anne Keatley Solomon, described the process as “triag[ing] the last remnants of the department’s enfeebled science and technology division.” The result, as described by J. Thomas Ratchford of George Mason University, is that “the United States is in an unenviable position. Among the world’s leading nations its process for developing foreign policy is least well coordinated with advances in S&T and the policies affecting them.”

The litany of decay of science in the State Department is further documented in a recent interim report of a National Research Council (NRC) committee: “Recent trends strongly suggest that . . . important STH [science, technology, and health]-related issues are not receiving adequate attention within the department . . . OES [the Office of Environment and Science] has shifted most of its science-related resources to address international environmental concerns with very little residual capability to address” other issues. Further, “the positions of science and technology counselors have been downgraded at important U.S. embassies, including embassies in New Delhi, Paris, and London. The remaining full-time science, technology, and environment positions at embassies are increasingly filled by FSOs with very limited or no experience in technical fields. Thus, it is not surprising that several U.S. technical agencies have reported a decline in the support they now receive from the embassies.”

This general view of the decay of science in the State Department is supported by many specific examples of ineptness in matters pertaining to S&T. Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf reports that “the State Department has suffered from a serious deficiency in scientific and technical awareness for decades . . . The department officially represents the United States in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Its representatives fought vigorously against introduction of core Internet concepts.”

One must ardently hope that the State Department will quickly correct its dismal past performance. The Internet is becoming an increasingly critical element in the conduct of commerce. The department will undoubtedly be called on to help formulate international policies and to negotiate treaties to support global electronic commerce. Without competence, without an appreciation of the power of the Internet to generate business, and without an appreciation of U.S. expertise and interests, how can the department possibly look after U.S. interests in the 21st century?

The recent history of the U.S. stance on the NATO Science Program further illustrates the all-too-frequent “know-nothing” attitude of the State Department toward scientific and technical matters. The NATO Science Program is relatively small (about $30 million per year) but is widely known in the international scientific community. It has a history of 40 years of significant achievement.

Early in 1997, I was a member of an international review committee that evaluated the NATO Science Program. We found that the program has been given consistently high marks on quality, effectiveness, and administrative efficiency by participants. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the program began modest efforts to draw scientists from the Warsaw Pact nations into its activities. Our principal recommendation was that the major goal of the program should become the promotion of linkages between scientists in the Alliance nations and nations of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. We also said that the past effectiveness of the program depended critically on the pro-bono efforts of many distinguished and dedicated scientists, motivated largely by the knowledge that the direct governance of the program was in the hands of the Science Committee, composed of distinguished scientists, which in turn reported directly to the North Atlantic Council, the governing body of NATO. We further said that the program could not retain the interest of the people it needed if it were reduced below its already modest budget.

The response of the State Department was threefold: first, to endorse our main recommendation; second, to demand a significant cut in the budget of the Science Program; and third, to make the Science Committee subservient to the Political Committee by placing control in the hands of the ambassadorial staffs in Brussels. In other words, while giving lip service to our main conclusion, the State Department threatened the program’s ability to accomplish this end by taking positions on funding and governance that were opposed to the recommendations of our study and that would ultimately destroy the program.

The NATO Science Program illustrates several subtle features of State’s poor handling of S&T matters. In the grand scheme of things, the issues involved in the NATO Science Program are, appropriately, low on the priority list of State’s concerns. Nevertheless, it is a program for which they have responsibility and they should therefore execute that responsibility with competence. Instead, the issue fell primarily into the hands of a member of the NATO ambassador’s staff who was preoccupied mainly with auditing the activities of the International Secretariat’s scientific staff and with reining in the authority of the Science Committee. Although there were people in Washington with oversight responsibilities for the Science Program who had science backgrounds, they were all adherents of the prevailing attitude of the State Department toward science: Except in select issues such as arms control and the environment, science carries no weight. They live in a culture that sets great store on being a generalist (which an experienced FSO once defined as “a person with a degree in political science”). Many FSOs believe that S&T issues are easily grasped by any “well-rounded” individual; far from being cowed by such issues, they regard them as trivial. It’s no wonder that “small” matters of science that are the responsibility of the department may or may not fall into the hands of people competent to handle them.

Seeking guidance

The general dismay in the science community over the department’s attention to and competence in S&T matters resulted in a request from the State Department to the NRC to undertake a study of science, technology, and health (STH) in the department. The committee’s interim report, Improving the Use of Science, Technology, and Health Expertise in U.S. Foreign Policy (A Preliminary Report), published in 1998, observes that the department pays substantial attention to a number of issues that have significant STH dimensions, including arms control, the spread of infectious diseases, the environment, intellectual property rights, natural disasters, and terrorism. But there are other areas where STH capabilities can play a constructive role in achieving U.S. foreign policy goals, including the promotion and facilitation of U.S. economic and business interests. For example, STH programs often contribute to regional cooperation and understanding in areas of political instability. Of critical importance to the evolution of democratic societies is freedom of association, inquiry, objectivity, and openness–traits that characterize the scientific process.

It would be a great step forward to recognize that the generalists that State so prizes can be trained in disciplines other than political science.

The NRC interim report goes on to say that although specialized offices within the department have important capabilities in some STH areas (such as nuclear nonproliferation, telecommunications, and fisheries), the department has limited capabilities in a number of other areas. For example, the department cannot effectively participate in some interagency technical discussions on important export control issues, in collaborative arrangements between the Department of Defense and researchers in the former Soviet Union, in discussions of alternative energy technologies, or in collaborative opportunities in international health or bioweapons terrorism. In one specific case, only because of last-minute intervention by the scientific community did the department recognize the importance of researcher access to electronic databases that were the subject of disastrous draft legislation and international negotiations with regard to intellectual property rights.

There have been indications that senior officials in the department would like to bring STH considerations more fully into the foreign policy process. There are leaders, past and present–Thomas Pickering, George Schultz, William Nitze, Stuart Eisenstadt, and most recently Frank Loy–who understand the importance of STH to the department and who give it due emphasis. Unfortunately, their leadership has been personal and has not resulted in a permanent shift of departmental attitudes, competencies, or culture. As examples of the department’s recent efforts to raise the STH profile, the leadership noted the attention given to global issues such as climate change, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and health aspects of refugee migration. They have pointed out that STH initiatives have also helped promote regional policy objectives, such as scientific cooperation in addressing water and environmental problems, that contribute to the Middle East peace process. However, in one of many ironies, the United States opposed the inclusion of environmental issues in the scientific topics of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue on the grounds that they would confound the Middle East peace process.

The interim NRC report concludes, quite emphatically, that “the department needs to have internal resources to integrate STH aspects into the formulation and conduct of foreign policy and a strong capability to draw on outside resources. A major need is to ensure that there are receptors in dozens of offices throughout the department capable of identifying valid sources of relevant advice and of absorbing such advice.” In other words, State needs enough competence to recognize the STH components of the issues it confronts, enough knowledge to know how to find and recruit the advice it needs, and enough competence to use good advice when it gets it, and it needs these competencies on issues big and small. It needs to be science savvy.

The path to progress

The rigor of the committee’s analysis and the good sense of its recommendations will not be enough to ensure their implementation. A sustained effort on the part of the scientific and technical community will be needed if the recommendations are to have a chance of having an impact. Otherwise, these changes are not likely to be given sufficient priority to emerge in the face of competing interests and limited budgets.

Why this pessimism? Past experience. In 1992, the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government issued an excellent report, Science and Technology in U.S. International Affairs. It contained a comprehensive set of recommendations, not just for State, but for the entire federal government. New York Academy of Sciences President Rodney Nichols, the principal author of the Carnegie report, recently told me that the report had to be reprinted because of high demand from the public for copies but that he knew of no State Department actions in response to the recommendations. There is interest outside of Washington, but no action inside the Beltway.

The department also says, quite rightly, that its budgets have been severely cut over the past decade, making it difficult to maintain let alone expand its activities in any area. I do not know if the department has attempted to get additional funds explicitly for its STH activities. Congress has generally supported science as a priority area, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t be so regarded at the State Department. In any event, there is no magic that will correct the problem of limited resources; the department must do what many corporations and universities have had to do. The solution is threefold: establish clear priorities (from the top down) for what you do, increase the efficiency and productivity of what you do, and farm out activities that can better be done by others.

State is establishing priorities through its process of strategic planning, so the only question is whether it will give adequate weight to STH issues. To increase the efficiency and productivity of internal STH activities will require spreading at least a minimum level of science savvy more broadly in the department. For example, there should be a set of courses on science and science policy in the curriculum of the Foreign Service Institute. The people on ambassadorial staffs dealing with science issues such as the NATO program should have knowledge and appreciation of the scientific enterprise. And finally, in areas of ostensible State responsibility that fall low in State’s capabilities or priorities, technical oversight should be transferred to other agencies while leaving State its responsibility to properly reflect these areas in foreign policy.

In conclusion, I am discouraged about the past but hopeful for the future. State is now asking for advice and has several people in top positions who have knowledge of and experience with STH issues. However, at these top levels, STH issues get pushed aside by day-to-day crises unless those crises are intrinsically technical in nature. Thus, at least a minimal level of science savvy has to spread throughout the FSO corps. It would be a great step forward to recognize that the generalists that State so prizes can be trained in disciplines other than political science. People with degrees in science or engineering have been successful in a wide variety of careers: chief executive officers of major corporations, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, university presidents, and even a few politicians. Further, the entrance exam for FSO positions could have 10 to 15 percent of the questions on STH issues. Steps such as these, coupled with strengthening courses in science and science policy at the Foreign Service Institute, would spread a level of competence in STH broadly across the department, augmenting the deep competence that State already possesses in a few areas and can develop in others. There should be a lot of people in State who regularly read Science, or Tuesday’s science section of the New York Times, or the New Scientist, or Scientific American, just as I suspect many now read the Economist, Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal. To be savvy means to have shrewd understanding and common sense. State has the talent to develop such savvy. It needs a culture that promotes it.

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Cite this Article

Schmitt, Roland W. “Science Savvy in Foreign Affairs.” Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 4 (Summer 1999).

Vol. XV, No. 4, Summer 1999