Obama’s Focus on Science for Diplomacy: A “New Beginning” for U.S. Science Too?

By Dr. Amy K. Flatten

Many of us in the scientific community are eagerly watching the progression of President Obama’s efforts in using “science for diplomacy” throughout the Middle East. His remarks in Cairo last June pointed to the important role of science in strengthening our partnership:

“On science and technology…..We’ll open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, and grow new crops.”

Following the Cairo speech, Secretary Clinton named Dr. Bruce Alberts, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, and Dr. Ahmed Zewail as the first three U.S. Science and Technology Envoys to travel to countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia to engage their counterparts and deepen partnerships in all areas of science and technology. Over the next year, additional U.S. scientists and engineers will be invited to join the Science Envoy program to expand it to other Muslim countries and regions of the globe. The State Department will also expand positions for environment, science, technology, and health officers at U.S. embassies and is exploring other opportunities to bring additional U.S. scientific expertise to these regions — possibly expanding the Embassy Science Fellows Program, as well as the Jefferson Science Fellowships.

But, what does this mean for the U.S. science community?

According to the State Department, “The Obama Administration is seeking opportunities to use science as a framework for building our international relations.” For the scientific community, this is welcome news, as we have continually asserted that cooperation among the world’s scientists promotes peace between nations. U.S.-USSR scientific cooperation at the height of the Cold War is a perfect example.

Will President Obama’s use of “science for diplomacy” call many of our colleagues to step beyond their campuses, laboratories, and institutes, using their scientific expertise to strengthen U.S. foreign policy? The Cairo speech acknowledged that science is imperative for economic growth and job creation — essential underpinnings of political stability. With science “serving as a framework for building international relations,” we must wonder if the scientific community will emerge with a “louder voice” in directing U.S. foreign affairs.

Dr. Amy K. Flatten is Director of International Affairs at The American Physical Society

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.