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The State Department Needs More Scientists

This article was originally published by the same title on The Hill in October 2020.

By W. Robert Pearson**, Benjamin Schmitt* and Giovanni Zanalda**

The global COVID-19 pandemic and the largely uncoordinated efforts worldwide to combat the disease cast into sharp relief the need for decision-makers to base policy responses on a sound scientific basis. While there have been many prescriptions written on the need for greater scientific input to the domestic policy process, the importance of better-integrating practitioners of science and technology to the conduct of foreign policy has been largely overlooked. If the United States is to address many fundamental strategic challenges of the coming decades, having scientists in the room must go from a “nice to have” to a “must-have,” and rapidly.

Most American diplomats do not have the background to judge the scope or significance of transnational challenges emanating from disease vectors, climate change, or new technologies. Nor is our diplomatic establishment structured to evaluate the potential of new scientific discoveries to make the world a safer, healthier, and more peaceful place. Without a scientist in the room, senior diplomats and national security officials may be ignorant of existing federal resources that could provide a rapid solution (e.g., U.S national laboratory expertise). Worse yet, they may not even know that there is a science question to be asked concerning a specific foreign policy challenge. 

The U.S. Department of Defense, as well as other elements of the U.S. federal government, have long since integrated consideration of the implications of science and technology into their institutional structures, budgetary commitments and decision-making processes. However, at the country’s senior-most diplomatic ranks, the integration of science and technology lags dangerously behind. The only elements expressly chartered to consider scientific, environmental, technological or energy issues are relegated to second-tier status within the State Department hierarchy. While the integration of temporary science fellows into the State’s junior ranks has yielded benefits to be sure, for the most part, the structure for science and diplomacy within the State Department is fractured, inadequate, and underfunded.   

To embed science and technology effectively into our foreign policy management will require structural changes.  

First, the State Department should create a new Foreign Service career track for diplomats with substantial prior formal background in the hard sciences and/or technology. The Department’s core mission — diplomacy in the field — must involve expertise in the STEM disciplines meaning the need for career professionals with sufficient scientific background and direct diplomatic authority.  

Second, the Department’s leadership hierarchy must include a clear focus on integrating science and technology into diplomacy. This almost certainly requires establishing an under secretariat for science and diplomacy supported by career professionals at all levels. Undersecretaries report directly to the Secretary of State, and the lack of direct access for scientific reporting to the nation’s senior-most diplomat is unacceptable in the 21st century.  

Few regional or global challenges do not require the effective integration of science and technology into our diplomacy. Dealing with pandemics or other global health problems, climate change, energy, cybersecurity, food security, water resources, disruptions and reorganization of global supply chains all demand expertise distinct from the skills of traditionally trained, conventional diplomats. For example, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) necessitate a new look at emerging global challenges and diplomacy’s capacity to deal with them. 

New diplomacy should embrace modern skills for the Foreign Service and recognize the multiplicative benefits that occur when science and diplomacy stakeholders converge to form partnerships around common challenges. The effective diplomatic use of academic and practical knowledge and expertise in the hard and soft sciences may determine the planet’s future. The challenge for American diplomacy and the science and technology community is to integrate multidisciplinary subject-matter expertise within both the Foreign Service and the senior foreign policy and national security process. We need to retool our diplomacy to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The sooner, the better.

W. Robert Pearson, Benjamin Schmitt, and Giovanni Zanalda are members of the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS)/Rethinking Diplomacy team.

W. Robert Pearson, DUCIGS/Rethinking Diplomacy Program fellow ( sends e-mail))

Benjamin Schmitt, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and DUCIGS/Rethinking Diplomacy Program fellow ( sends e-mail))

Giovanni Zanalda, Director DUCIGS ( sends e-mail))