Fall/Winter 2015 Vol. 15 Number 2

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Strengthening Science & Technology at the State Department

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Combating cybercrime, preventing the spread of contagious diseases across borders, addressing the causes and effects of global climate change -- these are just a few of the many international challenges in which science and technology play a critical role. Given their importance in a range of diplomatic arenas, science and technology (S&T) need a higher profile and stronger presence within the U.S. Department of State, says a new report from the Academies.

The report urges the State Department's leadership to take prompt steps to increase staffers' comprehension of the importance of S&T developments around the world and to incorporate this understanding into the nation's foreign policy. A culture shift is needed within the department so that expertise in S&T is valued as highly as fluency in foreign languages or expertise in area studies.

As one step toward this culture shift, the position of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary should be elevated to a status equivalent to that of an Assistant Secretary. And the Secretary of State should create an advisory board to provide guidance on non-defense S&T issues that are related to the department's diplomatic agenda.

The department should also keep a steady eye on the horizon for S&T developments that pose new challenges for foreign policy -- for example, drought conditions that result in large migrations or the increasing use of drones that cross international boundaries for civilian purposes. The department should conduct foresight assessments that identify these types of challenges, synthesize knowledge about them, and offer action-oriented recommendations for department officials to consider.

U.S. embassies are in particular need of greater S&T expertise and support. The department should more fully support its front-line diplomats with strong contingents of civil servants who are up-to-date on the technical dimensions of issues on the department's agenda. It should increase the cadre of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) with technical backgrounds and provide training and education for all FSOs to prepare them for handling S&T-related issues. In addition, the department should maintain S&T counselors at embassies where S&T issues are particularly important components of the bilateral relationship.

In strengthening its own capabilities, the department should also look beyond itself. Many entities outside government -- universities, research institutes, nongovernment organizations, and private companies -- are increasing their international reach, and all can be rich sources of knowledge that the department should harness in bolstering its S&T capacity.

-- Sara Frueh

Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Embedding a Culture of Science and Technology Throughout the Department of State. Committee on Science and Technology Capabilities at the Department of State; Development, Security, and Cooperation; Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2015, 190 pp., ISBN 978-0-309-37313-5; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $48.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Thomas Pickering, vice chairman, Hills and Company, Washington, D.C.; and Adel Mahmoud, professor in molecular biology and public policy, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. The study was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Golden Family Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supplemented by funds from the Academies.

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