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Our New Stakes in the State Department

I could be accused of "preaching to the choir" if I wrote to American Scientist readers about the profound and burgeoning relevance of science and engineering to global affairs and the domestic and foreign policies of nations. I'm confident you would agree that there should be a substantial presence of science and technology expertise in the Department of State and in foreign ministries. For the United States, regrettably, this has not been the case. Of course Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were first-rate scientist-statesmen, but that was an exceptional era.

During World War II and the Cold War, attention to science and technology at the State Department waxed strongly, and as global environmental challenges heightened in the 1970s Congress created within the department the Bureau of Ocean and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, which has carried a heavy burden ever since. In the ensuing years, however, competing demands for shrinking congressional appropriations have made deep inroads into the State Department's science and technology resources.

Reacting to mounting concern, partly from within the department and the White House and strongly from leaders in the science and technology community, Secretary Madeleine Albright in 1998 asked the National Research Council (the operating arm of the National Academies) to evaluate the situation and recommend how State could improve its technical capabilities in formulating and implementing foreign policy. The NRC panel was ably chaired by Robert Frosch, a past president of Sigma Xi. The panel's report, entitled "The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy," is available at

Now, after nearly a year of evaluation and recruitment, State has taken definitive action: As conditions permit, science officers will be placed at key embassies. Recruitment for Foreign Service Officers is being broadened to include scientists and engineers, and training courses at the Foreign Service Institute will give greater emphasis to science and technology issues.

The most important single step is the appointment in September of Norman Neureiter as Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary. He will serve the needs and opportunities across the Department. Secretary Albright's excellent choice bodes well for the Department and the U.S. Dr. Neureiter, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, brings a rich variety of experiences and skills to this demanding and exciting post, having served as a researcher at Exxon and in senior positions at Texas Instruments as well as posts at the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Foreign Service and the White House Office of Science and Technology. He also reads and speaks seven languages!

The scientific community is very fortunate that Norman has interrupted his "retirement" to take the position. Now our job is to support the new effort. First, we need to help the Department more readily access the community's human and knowledge resources. For the members of the community this implies personal actions that include giving scientific advice, steering promising graduates toward Foreign Service and postdoctoral appointments, and accepting temporary assignments. We need to facilitate a functional information network so that those who are responsible for foreign policy can access the best advice possible. Second, as the old saying goes (in reverse): "happiness can't buy money." We need to spread awareness that the deep erosion of financial support for the State Department, unless corrected, will severely hinder its ability to lead in the 21st century.

Congratulations to Bob Frosch and the NRC Panel, many thanks to Secretary Albright for her leadership, and very best wishes to Norman Neureiter. Carpe diem!

John H. Gibbons
President, Sigma Xi

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