• David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

U.S. to get Science-Savvy Diplomacy

15 May 2000 7:00 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C.--It's official: The State Department is looking for some science-savvy diplomats. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright today announced that her agency will boost its technical expertise by hiring a top-level science advisor and placing a greater emphasis on science. The pledge is drawing cautious applause from researchers, who have been pushing the U.S. government to improve the quality of the scientific advice available to foreign policy-makers.

Some scientists have worried that diplomats lack the right stuff for coping with high-profile issues ranging from genetically modified foods to global climate change. In 1998, Albright asked a National Academy of Sciences panel to take a close look at her agency's scientific expertise. Last October, the panel's report concluded that science-based controversies were moving "to the forefront of the international diplomatic agenda" just as the State Department was losing technically trained staff (ScienceNOW, 12 October 1999). The total number of full-time science counselors at all embassies, for instance, slipped from 22 in the 1980s to about 10 today. To reverse the trend, the panel--chaired by Harvard policy specialist Robert Frosch--proposed a dozen changes, from appointing a new science advisor to rewriting training manuals for new diplomats.

The recommendations appear to have had an impact. Noting that "good science is vital to good diplomacy," Albright today announced that, in addition to appointing a science advisor, she will recreate a focused science directorate within the agency and establish a new science policy group composed of senior officials. She has also ordered a survey, due to be completed by September, that will identify embassies in need of scientific staff. But she cautioned that change will take years. "What I envision is not a one-shot quick fix," she said in a statement today. "It doesn't take a physicist to know that change is harder than inertia."

Longtime advocates are hoping for the best, noting that nearly a dozen studies over the last decade have urged the State Department to spruce up its technical know-how. "I like what I'm hearing, but I'm concerned that we've heard these things before," says retired Admiral James Watkins, president of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education in Washington, D.C. To make a difference, Watkins says Albright's reforms must be continued by the next administration, while Congress should keep close tabs, "so that we can be sure the rhetoric is turned into reality."