Science Diplomacy for the 21st Century

Universe in 2009 / by Nina Fedoroff /

On being a citizen of a world without borders or boundaries.

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Well, we humans are given to making plans and setting goals, like the U.N.‘s Millennium Development Goals. Nothing wrong with plans and goals. Yet the best-laid plans, and all of that…

I have a different thought — perhaps two.

First, I think that all of us, particularly we Americans, need to become citizens of this boundary-less world without borders. We need to see, experience, and know the peoples and the problems of other nations. We need to recognize the complexity and interconnections among the challenges facing 21st-century humanity. And we need to understand — at a gut level — that all our fates are truly intertwined.

Then we need to stop moping and mobilize each other’s boundless ingenuity. We need to invent a science that will let us wrap our minds around the complex system that is our planet and its impressive passel of human activities. (And did you notice, science is a common language, hard evidence the agreed upon standard, a common, but unvengeful god.)

We must devise a million answers. Not answers to the problem of everything everywhere at once — neither planned economies nor planned development strategies have good track records.

Rather, we need an approach that is more akin to entrepreneurship, a business startup mentality. Or perhaps more like seed grants for new science and microfinance for converting sprouting science to practice. Both, as appropriate… whatever works.

Science and entrepreneurship are about investing in people. Science yields the unexpected, the new. Technology is versatile. People are inventive. Some entrepreneurs fail. Others make money — some a lot, some a little — and live better. Money made can be put to work again. And it can be invested in education.

But the 21st-century wrinkle is that we need a scientific understanding of our complex system to actually achieve the ideal embodied in the ponderous old phrase “sustainable development.” The ways of a past based on cheap, CO2-generating fossil fuel are sustainable neither economically nor ecologically.

We need to invent efficient, nonpolluting means of local power generation. We need more science to make us better at managing water, growing food, battling disease, and building economies into the next generation — and the next.

And we need our experts to help us jump the digital divide, both technically and humanly. I don’t mean humanely. I mean we need our scientists, our engineers, our experts of all stripes, to wander the world, to coach and help and teach — until the world is truly flat. Until all peoples have the educational and economic opportunities to build and live in knowledge societies, sustainable knowledge societies.

That’s 21st-century science diplomacy.

 — Nina Fedoroff is science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Originally published February 3, 2009

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Tags decision making diplomacy governance leadership policy politics

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