AAAS Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop 2018

Christopher Z. Lien – Biodefense, M.S. student

In late June, I attended the Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop 2018, a five day workshop held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Our class included 28 participants representing 15 countries including Spain, Latvia, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Pakistan, Austria, Portugal, Australia, and the United States. Participants came from varied professional disciplines (a large portion in the physical and biological sciences) and many are currently in graduate programs or already hold PhDs. Most of the discussions held were subject to Chatham House Rules, where the information presented may be used freely, but the speakers’ and other participants’ names and affiliations are not to be attributed to said information.

The first day posed the three main questions the workshop would address:

  • How does science inform diplomacy?
  • How does diplomacy inform science?
  • What does science in diplomacy look like today?

The second day began with a breakfast at the Embassy of France with The Science Diplomats Club of Washington, D.C. Science and technology representatives from the embassies of Poland, Canada, France, Switzerland, Italy, and from EURAXESS Links North America spoke to us regarding their countries’ scientific diaspora communities and how engaged these communities are in taking an international approach to science. Aligning educational policy with science, gaining talent from abroad, facilitating networking across the diaspora communities – these are some of the tasks the scientists are working toward.

Day three included the largest event of the workshop – a large simulation where we posed as delegates of the United Nations representing various countries, as well as a few non-governmental organizations, and gathered to decide whether global action is necessary to reduce the environmental and humanitarian impacts of mercury. This was dubbed the “Mercury Game”, which a revolves around the actual United Nations Environmental Programme global mercury assessment. We were to come to a consensus decision on whether sufficient scientific evidence exists to warrant a multinational approach to reducing mercury’s impact worldwide and whether such actions need to be legally binding or simply a voluntary measure. Mercury is applicable to many processes such as lighting, production of chlor-alkalis, and artisanal purposes. In less wealthy countries, the populace relies on mercury in some form or fashion to maintain its livelihood. As a representative of India for this simulation, priorities included pushing for voluntary rather than binding agreements and seeking financial and technical assistance to migrate away from mercury use, reduce mercury emission, and establish safer and more affordable alternatives. Strong resistance came from delegates of the United States, Canada, and the European Union, citing that non-binding agreements allow India to potentially back out of its responsibilities to cut mercury use however, I made sure to double back on the point of assurance during discussion. I questioned their stance by posing – “How shall the wealthier countries assure India that they will not renege from providing financial and technical assistance should a binding deal be struck? It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.” China’s delegates also debated rambunctiously, to nobody’s surprise. Negotiations became heated and some members became so engrossed in the simulation that they walked out of the room upon hearing certain outrageous proposals! Ultimately, a definitive agreement could not be made and a vote was held that established an international scientific collaboration to further study detailed worldwide impact of mercury – the summit would revisit the need for global action based on the new scientific findings after several years. Our Mercury Game simulation results resembled the real-world results of the UN summit upon which the game is modeled. It became ever clearer to the group that mixing science with diplomacy, and vice-versa, is no easy feat – it takes tactful negotiation, the will to make concessions, and a mutual understanding to bring about meaningful and effective results.

The week came to a close with a visit to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There, I heard from NASA scientists about atmospheric pollution and global climate change over the past several decades with examples of how atmospheric ozone depletion and chlorofluorocarbon use necessitates the need for a comprehensive global air quality model. Back at AAAS headquarters, speakers talked about programs to facilitate advanced degree opportunities shared between Israel and Palestine, volcanology in North Korea, and how over 90% of global trade happens by sea – the high seas are no one nation’s jurisdiction or territory. How do multiple countries deal with transboundary resources – ones that cross the national borders such as rivers or migratory birds and marine life? Diplomatic relations between friendly or hostile countries can help or hinder scientific research, respectively. However, fostering scientific collaborations can help alleviate diplomatic tensions.

Over 40 speakers presented on a plethora of topics relating science with diplomacy, diplomacy with science, and examples of science in diplomacy happening worldwide today. I learned that the science diplomat population is larger than I expected – an encouraging sign that there is an ongoing concerted effort toward integrating science and diplomacy. The AAAS Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop is an enlightening and highly valuable experience, showcasing relevant and enduring questions that are yet to be fully answered and how young science diplomats like us can contribute throughout our developing careers. I have confidence that I can use this experience to better inform my graduate studies in biodefense and steer my career in the right directions.

I would like to express my gratitude to the AAAS for hosting the workshop and the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Governmentand the GMU Biodefense program for allowing me the opportunity to attend. Further questions may be directed toward the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, the GMU Schar School, and myself at “clien4@masonlive.gmu.edu”.

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