Lessons for Science Envoys

Comment / by Sheila Jasanoff /

Sheila Jasanoff examines President Obama’s Middle East science envoy program and offers five crucial tips on what scientists should avoid overseas.

In Cairo last June, President Obama announced a plan to increase scientific and technological collaboration with the Muslim world. A key element of his proposal, sending scientific envoys to Muslim-majority countries, will soon get off the ground. This is good news for American scientists, who have long advocated for an expanded role in diplomacy. The late William T. Golden, who sold the White House on the idea of a presidential science adviser in the 1950s, pressed the case for more science at the State Department during the 1990s. With Golden’s backing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences successfully pushed to create the position of science and technology adviser to the secretary of state.

Nina Fedoroff, science adviser to Secretary Hillary Clinton, will have a big hand in defining the missions of America’s new science envoys. Fedoroff herself has a clear vision of what’s needed. She told Seed last February that US scientists, engineers, and experts should become global citizens, “to wander the world, to coach and help and teach” others until, borrowing a metaphor from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the world of knowledge and educational opportunity becomes truly flat.

If a disposition to wander is the main qualification for diplomacy, scientists are made for the job. Internationalism, for scientists, is not a dream but a way of life. Science thrives on crossing borders. In the West, scientists overcame the language barrier as far back as the 17th century, accepting the need for a professional lingua franca, first Latin, then French, now English. The International Council for Science, one of the oldest nongovernmental organizations, adopted the Principle of the Universality of Science, which holds that all scientists should be able to participate, equitably and without discrimination, in national or transnational scientific activities. AAAS, this nation’s largest scientific society, upholds the same values in the United States. In a globalizing yet conflict-prone world, scientists would seem to be natural ambassadors—mobile, committed to progress, and tirelessly working for truths that transcend human divisions.

But universal ideals alone will not protect science or scientists from missteps in the delicate business of bridging the gaps between Muslim countries and the United States. To be effective abroad, science diplomats will need to become sensitive to their own orthodoxies and to compensate for them. Here are five common misconceptions the envoys should watch for if they are to achieve success:

More science means more progress. The Obama administration firmly believes that science and technology hold solutions to the world’s most complex problems: climate change, energy shortages, food and water scarcity, AIDS and malnutrition, the threat of pandemic disease. But just as more food does not necessarily solve the problem of global hunger, so too more science cannot be expected to solve the basic problems of development. Technical knowledge and skills are indispensable for problem solving, but answers can be only as good as the processes that defined the problems. Open and inclusive processes produce agendas that matter to the majority. Closed processes foreground the interests of the few. Moreover, in any given setting, what American science and technology are best prepared to offer may or may not be what people most need. For ambassadors bringing solutions, a key first question should be, “Whose problem are we solving?”

Science diplomacy will help build sustainable knowledge societies. Implicit in the science envoy plan is the elevation of scientific knowledge and technological know-how—especially based in the physical, biological, and engineering sciences—to a higher plateau than other kinds of knowledge. Sustainable societies, however, need to integrate knowledge with experience, policy with principle, and prediction with memory. Such holistic thinking, in turn, calls for engaging the full spectrum of scientific knowledge, from the “soft” qualitative and social perspectives of anthropology to the “hard” quantitative and physical tools of earth sciences. Exporting engineering or biomedical expertise without social attentiveness can lead to mismatches between project and context—and to possibly catastrophic consequences.

Muslim societies need better science education. Scientists often blame low levels of public support for science on scientific illiteracy, and programs of science education are seen as the logical remedy. This temptation may be especially strong when governments send emissaries to societies with currently low records of scientific performance. Yet all indications are that rejecting science is the effect, not the cause, of deeper problems. Faith in science and technology is strongest in societies that have cultivated the prerequisites of social trust: transparency, accountability, public engagement. In reverse, confidence in science rapidly erodes if scientists are seen as aligning with political elites who have not earned the public trust.

Muslim countries are fundamentally alike. This assumption flattens the world in the wrong way, erasing distinctions that matter. Islam itself is not a unitary belief system. Besides, history, geography, natural resources, ethnic makeup, regional friendships and rivalries may all count for more than religion in shaping the needs of a Muslim-majority nation. Bringing the fruits of science and technology to any society without detailed, strategic knowledge of its politics, its institutions, or its cultures is a recipe for disappointment, or worse. American diplomacy does not need many replays of the “I’m shocked!” reaction that greeted recent news of Pakistan redesigning defensive missiles for possible offensive use against neighboring India.

Science diplomacy will promote cross-cultural understanding. Underpinning the science envoy plan is the assumption that scientists everywhere share a commitment to disinterested inquiry and communal problem solving, and hence can open up channels of communication when others fail. That strategy worked well during the Cold War to bridge a different ideological divide. A notable example was the creation of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria to study common human problems of energy consumption, environmental pollution, and global change. Today, in the era of venture capital, aggressive patent policies, and increased public funding for strategic areas such as nanotechnology, scientists are often closely allied with both corporate and governmental interests. Scientists used to collaborating with money and power may not be attuned to the will, or indeed the reactions, of the masses. Genetically modified crops, the poster children of agricultural biotechnology, were promoted by industry and welcomed by governments, but rejected by many consumers in the marketplace.

Finally, it is results that matter. Which versions of science and technology will our expert ambassadors carry when they travel abroad: science for the people or science for profit and power? Will American science serve the democratic humility of smokeless cookstoves, waterless toilets, and community clinics or the autocratic hubris of nuclear technology, genetically modified miracle crops, and pricey cancer drugs? For America’s science emissaries, success will depend on striking the right balance.

Originally published September 17, 2009

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