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Colglazier Sees a Bright Future for Science Diplomacy

by Anna Linvill

On Thursday, February 8th, 2024, the Rethinking Diplomacy Program (RDP) welcomed Dr. E. William Colglazier, Editor-in-Chief of Science and Diplomacy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for a webinar entitled, Is There a Future for Science Diplomacy? 

During his presentation, Dr. Colglazier shared a short history of science diplomacy and wisdom gleaned from his three decades of experience in the field working with emerging countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, democratic allies as well as with China, Russia, and Iran.  

Colglazier served as the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (2011–2014) and Executive Officer of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Research Council (NRC) (1994–2011). At the Academies he helped to oversee science policy studies advising the nation as well as the work of international committees such as the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the Peoples Republic of China, the Committee on Japan, the Committee on International Security and Arms Control, the Committee on Human Rights, and the Board on Science and Technology for International Development. He continues to serve on the International Advisory Board of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and co-chairs the Global Science Diplomacy Roundtable at the U.S. National Academies.   

Science and technology can aid, inform, and advance diplomatic goals, while diplomacy can help advance the national and global science and technology enterprise. Sometimes, science, technology, & innovation can also “leapfrog” over diplomatic hurdles to help solve critical national and global challenges.” He explained.  

Dr. Colglazier presented some powerful examples of how science and diplomacy have historically worked in tandem. During the non-governmental Track II dialogues, collaboration between scientists from the U.S. and the Soviet Union led to progress on nuclear arms control in the 1980’s.  Later that decade, the 1987Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, was adopted; pushed forward by scientists who sounded the alarm about the destruction of the ozone layer. Eventually, corporations developed refrigerants without ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Higher manufacturing standards as well as CFC reductions were adopted internationally because of work by diplomats who pursued an international agreement to phase out their production. More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) resulting from discussions between scientists and policymakers, has contributed to international negotiations that produced the 2015 Paris Agreement.    

Colglazier lamented that today, with the world facing increased competition, conflicts, and wars involving the major powers, the acceleration of climate change, the damage done to global economies by Covid-19 and the continuing risk of global pandemics, security threats emerging from new technologies, and growing concerns about the risks involved in international scientific engagements, there have been significant reversals of past progress and more obstacles to using scientific engagement to advance diplomacy.  

“Politics remains a more powerful force than science as current events and dramatic setbacks make clear. Security concerns have created significant challenges for international scientific collaboration and will slow the worldwide advance of science.” 

Ambassador (ret.) Bob Pearson (RDP’s Senior Fellow) moderated the event. Panelists, Duke students, and audience members had many questions for Dr. Colglazier around what the challenges and priorities for science diplomacy in this new era should be, including international engagement by non-governmental scientific organizations, and about careers in Science Policy/Diplomacy.  

Colglazier laid out five main priorities for science diplomacy today:   

  • Controlling new technologies of war which can be used by nation states and terrorists. 
  • Providing foresight and facilitating dialogue on the implications of rapid technological developments. 
  • Maintaining a channel of communication between estranged nations with potential for conflict and war. 
  • Accelerating progress on global climate goals. 
  • Building capacity in emerging economies to achieve their social, economic, and environmental goals 

“Remember that science diplomacy really got its start with the efforts of non-governmental scientists to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons–a priority that must continue.” 

On the question of the kinds of obstacles stand in the way of effective science diplomacy efforts, Colglazier emphasized the “need to remember that science alone cannot solve our problems.  Only people can, but science diplomacy can help…We need to help make every country a knowledge-based society where scientific knowledge can be an important input to public policy, and we should work to enable countries and the world to realize the benefits and manage the risks of technological advances.” 

Is it possible to predict the threats, disruptions, and opportunities of emerging technologies?  

The question of whether Anticipatory Diplomacy can play a role in the future of science diplomacy is a major focus of the RDP.  Ambassador Pearson emphasized that scientists, diplomats, and policy makers should be working to stay abreast of new developments in technology and try to anticipate problems before they become crises. Colglazier agreed. 

“No one can predict the future, but foresight exercises can expand our thinking about significant trends and future possibilities.” 

Resources on Space Diplomacy: In his presentation, Dr. Colglazier pointed out that mega-trends and possible futures have been explored in the Global Trends reports issued every four years by the Director of National Intelligence, and in recent discussions in “Science Diplomacy and Future Worlds” (Sept. 2018) and “Emerging Technologies” (February 2022) in Science & Diplomacy ( 

Other articles in Science & Diplomacy and Issues in Science & Technology referenced during Dr. Colglazier’s talk are listed below:  

  • Science Diplomacy and Future Worlds (09/13/2018) Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Catastrophic Failures of the Science-Policy Interface (04/09/2020) 
  • America’s Science Policy and Science Diplomacy After COVID-19 (06/28/20) 
  • National Interest, Global Interest, and Science (01/22/2021) 
  • Consensus Opinion versus Rapid Change: Afghanistan, COVID-19, and Climate Change (09/20/2021) 
  • Emerging Technologies and Science Diplomacy (02/16/2022 with Kim Montgomery) 
  • The Precarious Balance Between Research Openness and Security (Issues in Science & Technology,, 2023) 

This webinar was organized by the Rethinking Diplomacy Program in collaboration with the Sanford School of Public Policyin alignment with the Duke Climate Commitment.   

The Rethinking Diplomacy Program is grateful for the longstanding support of the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation.   

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