- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

People often speak about the science of diplomacy, but few people know about scientists at the U.S. Department of State whose job, in part, is making diplomats aware of the contributions science can make to their craft.

Thanks to groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and its Science & Technology Fellowship program, more than two dozen men and women with advanced science or medical degrees are staffing various State Department bureaus and offices for periods of one or two years. Outsiders in an insiders’ world, fellows in this 26-year-old program are short-term employees on a steep learning curve who bring the benefits of their specialized training to what, by and large, is a generalists’ domain.

They write briefing and background papers, often on deadline; organize and lead conferences; and work with other scientists here and abroad. In return, they get a crash course in public policy-making while helping implement foreign policy in ways that don’t always make headlines.

Andrew Reynolds, deputy adviser in the department’s Office of the Science & Technology Adviser, calls scientists’ presence “an infusion of fresh blood.” Sage Russell, an AAAS program administrator, suggests that the fellows’ contribution stems from “habits of mind — their different ways of doing research and collecting information.”

Karl Galle, 37, a second-year fellow who took a lot of hard-science courses as an undergraduate and holds a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science, had never quite resolved whether to go into biomedical research or international affairs. His previous job was working for the National Academy of Sciences. Of his future, he says, “I became interested in public service, and I’m still interested in public service.” While in the State Department’s Office of Afghanistan Affairs, he was a go-between for a program lending other government agency scientists to embassies abroad and also dealt with counternarcotics, border management and police training matters. In his present post as bio-chem engagement officer in the Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction, he works with scientists and scientific institutes associated with former Soviet weapons programs to make the transition to “peaceful, sustainable work,” he says.

Most recently, he was in Kyrgyzstan talking about biosafety measures at a regional disease surveillance conference and visited labs there and in Tajikistan “to discuss concerns about infectious diseases.” “You have to learn by doing,” Mr. Galle says — and often “doing” means taking the initiative to break down the doors of orthodox thinking — diplomatically, of course.

Tanuja Rastogi, 35, is an experienced epidemiologist in the Office of Agricultural, Biotechnology and Textile Trade Affairs, part of State’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. “I could have gone into pure science, but I liked the fact public health is so disciplinary in nature,” she says, reflecting on her time in India doing fieldwork for her doctorate.

Her project involved population-based research and setting up collaborative ventures with urban hospitals. “What is the point of research if it doesn’t help anyone?” she asks rhetorically.

She later worked at the World Health Organization and did a postdoctoral degree at the National Institutes of Health but wanted more policy training, being, she admits, “fascinated with globalization.” Her studies now turn on health matters in relation to trade policy. “Some of our policies are clearly based on scientific data, and we often rely on interagency partners, but it can be useful to have someone to summarize data without scientific jargon,” she says, adding: “It’s been very enlightening to see how important is communication.

“I do get a bit frustrated with scientists who don’t go the extra step to translate information so policy people can start using it,” Ms. Rastogi says.

Some past fellows have moved on to other government agencies where they can use what they learned at the Department of State.

“I love critters,” says veterinarian Dana Roth, 40, a veteran of three years’ clinical practice in the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals before she became a 2001-03 fellow in State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Just as much or more these days, she likes dealing with food, pest and invasive-species issues as they relate to both environmental and international security.

Currently a Latin America technical specialist for international programs in the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, she believes strongly in the need to forge personal bonds across the borders for collaborative ventures that will help preserve and promote countries’ natural resources.

Mechanical engineer Krista Donaldson, 33, a 2004-05 fellow in the Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs/Office of Iraq Economic Affairs, says she relished the exposure she got to “a blend of science, technology, policy-making and development” in addition “to seeing how government worked.” She since has returned to Palo Alto, Calif., where she is affiliated with Stanford University’s Center for Design.

During tours in Iraq under the fellowship, her special focus was on the restoration of the country’s electrical grid.

“I’m not a power engineer, I’m mechanical,” she says, “but I could talk details with engineers on the ground. I learned enough to know when contractors didn’t give us the full story. … I hope I left as a legacy more realistic goal-setting.”

Former 2004-05 fellow Alex Dehgan, 37, an ecologist and lawyer, worked to rebuild science in Iraq while serving in several capacities, the last as a member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff. He also was among the group of AAAS fellows responsible for creation of the Iraqi Virtual Science Library to give that country’s beleaguered scientists, engineers and scholars electronic access to cutting-edge material from the world’s leading scientific journals.

“State demands quick adaptation,” he says, characterizing the department as “a biological system, and if you understood the constraints on that system and how it reacts to events and information, you could use it to your advantage.” He established the Iraq International Center for Science and Industry to encourage weapons scientists to work on civilian projects, helped create the Iraq Nonproliferation Programs Foundation and the Iraq Radiation Source Regulatory Authority, and helped reconstruct the Iraq Natural History Museum.

He is in Kabul as Afghanistan country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, where, he says, he uses “science as a means of diplomacy.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide