Treading a wary path

June 1, 2009
Fedoroff: Playing down science as "soft power"?

Fedoroff: Soft pedalling on"soft power"?

If there is an international cheerleader for the current drive to place “science diplomacy” on the international political agenda, it must surely be Nina Fedoroff, a plant geneticist who, in 2007, was appointed as the chief scientific adviser to the US Department of Science.

Speaking at the AAAS/Royal Society meeting on “New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy” taking place this week in London, Fedoroff set out a broad ranging vision of how such diplomacy was vital to building “constructive knowledge-based international partnerships”.

Perhaps taken slightly aback by the vehemence with which the speaker who had preceded her — UK chief scientific adviser John Beddington– had highlighted dangers of mixing science and politics – Fedoroff started by differentiating between “science diplomacy” and “the use of science in diplomacy” [see previous posting].

The first, she suggested, represented legitimate efforts by scientists to put their skills, both individually and collectively, to tackle global problems, a characterisation that coincided with the description that Beddington had previously made.

“Science and scientific diplomacy at every level are enormously important in filling in the knowledge chasm dividing the rich and the poor,” she argued, a sentiment with which few in the room seemed to disagree.

Fedoroff placed less explicit emphasis on the idea that is helping to give the idea of science diplomacy traction in political circles in Washington, namely its value – which even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged — as “soft power” through which the US can pursue its foreign policy objectives.

For example, she described US support for moves to support Russian weapons scientists trained in nuclear and chemical weaponry who sought to move into civilian projects after the fall of communism. But she did not refer to one of the key motivations, namely to prevent such scientists selling their skills to “rogue states”, particularly in the Middle East.

But there was one telling slide in her presentation. Fedoroff was describing the scheme under which research scientists are seconded as fellows to the US State department to learn at first hand the challenges of combining science with foreign policy.

One such fellow is currently working in Iraq helping in a similar fashion to dismantle that country’s military technology capacities and direct its scientists towards peaceful projects. Fedoroff recited the clear pragmatic gains to be made from such an activity. But she did not highlight an additional goal listed at the bottom of the slide, namely “to undermine popular support for terrorism”.

After that it was little surprise to learn that one of the countries on which the United States is currently focussing its efforts at building strong scientific partnerships is Pakistan.

Legitimate enough in its own way. And certainly far from undesirable. But in such situations, the borderline between science and politics is perilously thin.

David Dickson. SciDev.Net

%d bloggers like this: