Science Attachés in Embassies

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Science  02 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5987, pp. 13
DOI: 10.1126/science.1189621

The United States' intention to increase International Cooperation in Science and technology (S&T) is welcome news. Such efforts would be particularly effective in the Muslim world, where countries are in need of the economic development that would result from improvements in their S&T sectors. Last year, President Obama appointed three Science Envoys to Muslim-majority countries: Bruce Alberts, former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (and current Editor-in-Chief of Science); Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Laureate and professor at the California Institute of Technology; and Elias Zerhouni, former director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The appointment of several more Science Envoys is expected soon. However, this promising new initiative will require committed institutional support, which can best be provided by the appointment of Science (and Technology) Attachés in the relevant U.S. embassies.

Many U.S. embassies had such attachés in the past. During my 10 years (starting in 1973) at the U.S. Smithsonian Institution, the services of Science Attachés were a great advantage. In Moscow, such an attaché assisted our delegation throughout discussions about joint production of a chart of lunar surface features, as well as Earth photography on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of 1975. In Egypt, a Science Attaché facilitated my team's work in studying its vast deserts, including securing field permits and shipping samples to the United States. And in India, the Science Attaché paved the way for our research in the Rajasthan Desert. These individuals also maintained contact with many researchers and institutions, leaving open the doors for future cooperative projects. The type of assistance that I received in these countries required a person with extensive science and engineering knowledge. Unfortunately, the Science Attaché position was abolished two decades ago, but it is needed more than ever today to achieve the Obama Administration's objectives.


By their nature, cooperative S&T programs are long-term, requiring attention over extended periods of time. Only embassy personnel can meet this need effectively, following up on the contacts made by science envoys and other U.S. visitors. A Science Attaché can also assess the S&T capabilities and needs of a country by collecting the opinions of decision-makers and local professionals. This information can help to guide the U.S. Administration on the best short- and long-term strategies, forming links for local counterparts to the most appropriate U.S. institutions for joint research, education, and development activities.

The appointment of Science Attachés in U.S. embassies would highlight what many countries greatly respect about the United States: its first-rate S&T. How might the outstanding people required for such posts be selected, trained, and supported? The U.S. Department of State (DOS) should not be expected to create this program alone. The DOS could recruit the National Academies to recommend the best individuals for specific posts, and other agencies with successful attaché programs can provide a proven framework. The U.S. Department of Agriculture supports scientific experts inside embassies. Following this model, other agencies with technical expertise, including the National Science Foundation, National Institute for Standards and Technology, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, could provide staff for a Science Attaché program. In each case, a subject-matter expert would be placed within an embassy, fully integrated into the embassy's country team. Foreign service staff dedicated to diplomacy issues related to the environment, science, technology, and health are also needed. Ironically, this position is often absent from embassies, even though it is a sought-after career path. All such individuals, supported by the Science and Technology Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State and the Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science, could also benefit the director of the White House Office of S&T Policy on international matters. By working as a team, Science Attachés and Science Envoys should produce striking results, thereby securing the longevity of a new science diplomacy.

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