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HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 1999 > Article Detail

FROM THE PRESIDENT

Science and Foreign Policy

The lack of attention to scientific and technological matters in U.S. foreign policy has been bemoaned for many years. There is good reason for this concern. Science and technology (S&T) increasingly affect national security policy (bioterrorism, transfer of militarily sensitive technology, technological capabilities of possible adversaries), international economic policy (trade in bioengineered products, international telecommunications, microelectronics, the global internet), and international environmental policy (global climate change, biodiversity). The examples serve merely to illustrate the wide range of S&T aspects of key issues that engage the U.S. Department of State, and the list could be extended easily.

And yet, as is only too well known, science and technology receive short shrift in our foreign-policy machinery. Indeed, the situation seems to grow worse rather than better. The State Department recently essentially eliminated its poorly supported S&T division. It is eliminating science counselors from its embassies. Its career structure does not reward anyone bold enough to seek advancement through a specialization in science and technology. Despite efforts for the past 15 years, no lasting, significant change has taken place.

This has not gone unnoticed, nor is there a lack of proposed solutions. In August 1997 (Science 277:650), Admiral James D. Watkins recommended that the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology take the lead in galvanizing action in the Executive Branch. A panel of the National Research Council, chaired by former Sigma Xi President Robert Frosch, has produced a preliminary report with a number of specific recommendations that was sent to the Secretary of State in September 1998. In November 1998 (Science 282:1649), Anne Keatley Solomon recommended that a new bureau devoted to S&T be established within the State Department. At the same time (Science 282:1650), J. Thomas Ratchford suggested that the main federal R&D agencies be given a legislative mandate and resources to handle the job for the State Department. These follow the actual establishment in the late 1980s of a special career path within the State Department for S&T affairs. Unfortunately, this "cone" ran aground on the shoals of the traditional career paths and was never an effective mechanism.

At present, there appears to be no straightforward solution to this problem. In fact, it may be unrealistic to think that science and technology will occupy a significant place at the State Department any time soon. With relations with China deteriorating, Russia in chaos, continuing instability and conflict in the Middle East, an intransigent and threatening North Korea, unending conflict in the Balkans, economic crises threatening stability in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and on and on—it is not hard to understand why S&T do not rank high in State Department priorities. Available resources are committed to what are perceived as the central issues around the world.

Nevertheless, the S&T aspects of international problems can only grow in importance. Only when it is clear that it is in the interest of the leaders at the State Department, sufficient to cause them to make effective internal changes, will there be any real improvement. This will require first that attention be persistently directed to the importance of S&T in foreign affairs. Leaders in the scientific community can play an important role in doing this. Admiral Watkins's suggestion that PCAST should take a leading role thus has considerable merit. Sigma Xi and its members can likewise help to maintain attention on the importance of S&T in U.S. foreign policy, perhaps through the science advocacy programs that are beginning to take root.

John H. Moore
President, Sigma Xi

 

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