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Science Diplomacy: Trading Frock Coats for Lab Coats

• February 09, 2009 • 5:51 PM

Intractable diplomatic conundrums, like the West’s relationship with Iran, may find paths toward a solution by emphasizing scientific exchanges.

Vaughan Turekian is pushing an unusual suggestion for how to engage Iran, a country America has had no formal relations with since 1980. His idea is suddenly one of many on the topic, as foreign policy wonks, historians and politicians debate the merits of starting a new dialogue with some of America’s longest-running antagonists. Should we send a low-level diplomat, the new secretary of state or the president himself?

Turekian’s suggestion — one that applies equally to isolated locations throughout the world — is this: Send a scientist.

Deep-rooted suspicion (and a slew of fictional spy thrillers) says our scientists are the last people we want wandering into a country with nuclear ambitions and “non-friendly” status. But this idea doesn’t call for sending nuclear physicists; rather, cancer researchers, climate change experts, water, agriculture and earthquake specialists. Even social scientists.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is trying to revive an old — but, Turekian says, dormant — idea that “science diplomacy” could make major inroads in countries where traditional American diplomacy is nonexistent, or where existing relationships could be strengthened outside the embassy.

The AAAS last summer launched a new Center for Science Diplomacy, which Turekian directs, and it’s hoping to take advantage of a new attitude in Washington and a brow-raising trend abroad.

While foreign views of America have tumbled since Sept. 11, opinions about American science and technology have consistently been the exception.

That pattern, particularly strong in the Middle East, could help the AAAS build on a model that has worked before. “From a scientific standpoint,” Turekian jokes of the whole enterprise, “there is some proof of principal.”

Relationships in a Test Tube
John F. Kennedy established a science and technology cooperation agreement with Japan in 1961 following appeals to repair the “broken dialogue” between the two countries’ intellectual communities after World War II. That agreement helped round out a tenuous relationship at the time rooted only in security concerns — and it led two generations later, Turekian would argue, to a Nobel Prize in physics last fall shared by two Japanese scientists and a Japanese American.

In December, the United States and China marked the 30th anniversary of normalized relations, which in the very early stages, at the prodding of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, led to a similar science and technology cooperation agreement.

And in the most well-known example, civilian scientific exchanges with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War (blessed, indirectly, by both governments with visa approval) linked the two countries when official diplomatic connections were stalled. Today, the U.S. and Russia share a space station.

Since the end of the Cold War, though, scientific exchanges like the kind that jump-started deeper relationships with Japan, China and Russia have been less prevalent, replaced in some cases even by a fear of technology transfer.

“People continued to talk about science and technology cooperation,” Turekian said, “but oftentimes, honestly, the heart hasn’t been in it.”

Neither has the immigration policy, which, for the last eight years, has dramatically complicated one crucial half of any science exchange program — the import of foreign students to America.

Now, at the beginning of a new administration, and with several unresolved international conflicts mired in military threats, politicians of all stripes have begun to talk about the limits of “hard power.”

“All of the pieces of the power structure — the hard, soft, economic, the whole thing — need to be rethought,” Turekian said.

The soft power of science, though, is not without its complications.

While the AAAS was organizing a December discussion in its Washington auditorium on bridge-building with Iran through science, a prominent American leading scientific exchanges in Iran was detained there.

Arresting the Messenger
Glenn Schweitzer, director of the National Academies’ Office for Central Europe and Eurasia, had been coordinating nongovernmental exchanges with Iran for more than a decade. On this latest visit, scientists from both countries identified a laundry list of areas for continued cooperation: cancer trends, biomedical ethics, cell replacement therapy, personalized medicine and highway accidents.

Shortly before he was scheduled to leave the country, Schweitzer was detained by three announced “security officials.” English-language newspapers in Iran at the time had been full of reports of American and Israeli counterintelligence activities in the country. The U.S., Iranian officials would later accuse, was trying to foment a “velvet revolution.”

Schweitzer was questioned for nine hours across two days about his involvement in such a revolution. He was eventually released, but he said the security officials left him with a message that “science exchanges are not a good thing.”

“This was quite a surprise,” Schweitzer told the audience at the AAAS event, which had been rescheduled around his detainment to January, two days after Barack Obama’s inauguration. “Just two days earlier, we had had one of the top political leaders of the country who said, ‘Charge on, these are great things to do. We’d like to have this cooperation. In fact, I want to be involved in the cooperation.’

“So there’s a disconnect between the scientific community, the political leadership, and the security services.”

Schweitzer was speaking specifically about Iran, but a similar schism may exist anywhere in the world where public opinion of American foreign policy differs so dramatically from opinion of U.S. science and technology.

As a result of Schweiter’s detention, the National Academies have suspended exchanges with Iran until its government can provide safety assurances to visiting scholars and scientists.

The incident was equally surprising to Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, who visited Iran in November with a delegation of university presidents (all scientists by background). The group had been invited by counterparts in Iran to discuss student and faculty exchanges. Berdahl stressed to his hosts that security was his main concern, and so Schweitzer’s detention just a few weeks after those conversations has now stalled that program, too.

Iran, with its mix of enthusiasm for American exchanges but security obstacles to hosting them, underscores the challenges “science diplomacy” would face even around noncontroversial areas of research cooperation such as water irrigation.

Suspicion of American motives, regardless of the package, runs deep in Iran.

“There is a history of cultural, educational and scientific exchanges being part of an official policy of regime change,” said Iranian-American scholar Shiva Balaghi, who also spoke at the AAAS event, referring to America’s admitted role in the 1953 coup that ousted Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. “The suspicions we’re seeing in Iran are not completely baseless. To ask Iranians, as Madeline Albright did, to forget about 1953 is a little bit like asking Americans, ‘Well why don’t you just forget Pearl Harbor?'”

That “burden of history,” as Berdahl called it, is one of the greatest obstacles on all sides.

There are also endless practical ones: Iranians struggle obtaining American visas, while Americans can’t carry computers into Iran. Iranian researchers complained to Berdahl that international journals wouldn’t publish their work. And due to embargoes, America-made scientific equipment and technology exists hardly anywhere in Iranian labs.

Sweating Over the D-Word
What such exchange programs do have going for them are goals — tangible, measurable, scientific goals that transcend language and politics.

“Science provides a substantive underpinning,” Turekian said. “We really are interested in finding out about certain implications, how you can actually build effective solar voltaic cells in regions where there is a specific type of silicon-based soil. The research question would drive forward and mean the relationship is based on something.”

Solving a scientific problem also encourages a sustainable relationship that doesn’t exist when the acme of diplomacy is just two countries swapping symphony tour dates — or, as has been more successful in the past, pandas or ping pong players. A bid for a bit of “shuttlecock diplomacy” with Iran has failed, though, as a long-planned visit by the U.S. women’s badminton squad to Iran this week fell through after Iran denied the players visas.

In today’s world, there are infinite scientific challenges requiring global cooperation, from climate change to reproductive health to overpopulation and sustainability. These problems call not for nuclear physicists packing potential security leaks but hydrologists, sociologists and nutritionists.

Libya, once a member of the second-edition axis-of-evil, last year signed its first bilateral agreement with the U.S. since the two countries re-established relations in 2004. It was a science and technology cooperation agreement calling for collaboration on public health, water resource and atmospheric science research.

It was dubbed by the U.S. embassy “an important step in recognizing Libya’s historic renunciation of weapons of mass destruction and positive re-engagement with the international community” (or, as Turekian put it, “There was a desire to move the relationship beyond ‘we promise not to do terrorism,’ ‘we promise not to bomb you'”).

With that model, future official collaborations with Syria, North Korea or even Cuba seem possible, beyond the impeded work that currently exists in some of those countries.

In his work with Iran, Schweitzer has always been adamant about emphasizing the science-first aims of his programs.

“From the very outset, we decided this was going to be measured in terms of science,” he told the AAAS crowd. “We weren’t trying to be a back channel to the Iranian government. We weren’t trying to use science for diplomatic advantage. We were trying to use science to benefit the global community.”

The activity’s spin-off benefits for diplomatic relations, he says, are for others to judge. For that reason, he never uses the phrase “science diplomacy,” preferring instead people-to-people or scientist-to-scientist exchanges.

Berdahl’s delegation similarly stressed on its trip that it did not wish to meet with politicians. It was there to talk about science and education, with scientists and educators.

In a country historically suspicious of American motives, it may be best not to confuse the issue — especially when many of the different forms of “science diplomacy” the AAAS is advocating don’t involve scientists empowered to speak for their government.

“I think the understanding of this term ‘science diplomacy’ is kind of fuzzy here in the U.S., but it is really fuzzy overseas,” Schweitzer later said. “‘Diplomacy’ has this foreign-relations emphasis, and when you say ‘science diplomacy’ to someone from a different country, I think that person automatically thinks about the ministry of foreign affairs and not about the ministry of science. I know that’s true in Iran.”

The phrase may be necessary, he concedes, for the State Department to justify funding science overseas. And it does capture in Washington one of the many potential benefits to such programs. But the pitch is different to citizens on both sides of any exchange: The idea is not that we’ll influence each other’s behavior, but that we’ll learn something in the process.

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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