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Why We Need Science Diplomacy in the Age of Trumpism

Why We Need Science Diplomacy in the Age of Trumpism

The United States has a resounding legacy of cooperation and collaboration within the international scientific community. Science opens doors that otherwise would have remained closed by allowing diplomacy, mutual understanding, and reasonability to take place outside politics. It is a way for countries—and the real people within those countries—to work together on critical, contemporary issues such as climate change, infectious disease, and renewable energy. These problems pay no heed to state borders or cultural divides, and neither do the scientists who work on them. Diverse and collaborative teams are required in order to produce efficient, globally-conscious solutions to a growing list of transnational problems.

The new executive order on immigration, signed by President Donald Trump on January 27, 2017, poses a threat to the United States’ longstanding practice of effective science diplomacy.

A Brief History of Science Diplomacy

In the height of the Cold War, the famous “handshake in space” between a U.S. astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut symbolized the success of the Apollo Program and monumental Apollo-Soyuz 1975 mission. The resulting photograph, displayed in an iconic  New York Times headline, demonstrated to the world that U.S.-Soviet tensions could be relieved through scientific collaboration.

The handshake in space was not an isolated incident, either. In 1961, President John Kennedy created the U.S.-Japan Committee on Science Cooperation with the help of the National Science Foundation to ease post-war tensions and distrust. In 1972, President Richard Nixon travelled to China to sign the Shanghai Communique, emphasizing science and technology as one of the four major areas for future cooperation. In 1945, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led the multinational veterans of the Manhattan Project in convincing the U.S. government that controlling fissile material was essential to the preservation of international security.

More recent examples include the initiatives led by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in Iran in the post-9/11 years, and the continued effort by scientists to quietly and persistently cultivate partnerships with scholars in Cuba after a six-decade freeze. In each of the above examples, science diplomacy happens by way of influencing foreign policy, soothing international relations via shared scientific goals, and improving the advancement of science by collaborative processes.

Isolationism is a Threat

Despite this noble and productive history, science diplomacy is now at risk. A recent letter signed by 171 leading scientific organizations, societies, institutes, and universities, argues, “scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas and people.” The recent executive order challenges this notion by barring the U.S. entrance of refugees from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. For researchers, scholars, and students with visas or green cards in the U.S., this could mean trouble in upcoming months.

In completing a PhD dissertation or post-doctoral work, it is expected that a scholar will continue to present published work at conferences. While the U.S. itself holds a number of international scientific conferences domestically, traveling abroad is a necessary and inescapable part of modern scientific research. With the immigration ban, students from these countries are withdrawing conference participation for fear that they may not be able to re-enter the U.S. Many of the most talented American scientists were not born in the U.S. Five million of the 29 million American scientists are immigrants. These scientists are some of the best and brightest scholars, researchers, and students from all over the world. In fact, all six Nobel Prizes awarded to the U.S. in 2016 were earned by immigrant scholars.

A Diminishing Attraction

In an article published by the acclaimed scientific journal Nature, the physicist and former science adviser to the Secretary of State, William Colglazier, articulated, “Even if other countries don’t like our government, they still admire and want to interact with our universities, our research institutions and our high-tech companies.” Scientists are in a unique place to enhance diplomacy through interpersonal relationships and company partnerships. While their job description rarely includes tasks like those of a Foreign Service Officer, they have unique opportunities to work abroad, start alliances with international universities, and create conversations when dialogues have already stopped on the political front.

The value of this cannot be overstated. As such, science diplomacy continues to be an essential tool not only in advancing science to address transnational issues, but in improving international affairs and cross-cultural understanding as well.

In light of the new immigration policy, many are concerned that the attractiveness of the U.S. as a major destination in scientific research is threatened. Why would a scholar from the Middle East want to come to the U.S. when his colleagues from Iran, Sudan, and Libya are banned? Neighboring countries may hesitate to send these students either as a symbol of solidarity or simply out of fear. Furthermore, if these talented researchers aren’t allowed to enter the U.S. either for research or conferences, then the logical solution may be to move the conferences out of the U.S. This is a huge problem if the U.S. hopes to maintain its status as a leader in the scientific world.

Why does this matter?

Modern societies are marked by their technological and scientific power. In this fashion, the U.S. has maintained its status as a leader in the world order, not only through its military or economic competence, but also for its universities, scholars, and excellence in academia. Therefore, in order to remain relevant in current research and innovation, we must continue to capitalize on the international and multicultural environment within which we operate. Science does not happen in a vacuum, and neither does policy. The way to a more developed, influential, and intellectually capable society—within a state and across states—is through scientific collaboration.

Approximately one fifth of the world’s professional scientific articles have authors from at least two countries. Closing our doors out of ungrounded fear suggests that the U.S. is not the inquisitive, strong, and multifaceted land that we were told to believe. Globalization is here to stay. Expending effort to fight against this trend is futile and irresponsible.

We must join the world in which we live.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or the views of Arbitror itself.

Photo: "Science World" by Brigitte Werner (CC0 Public Domain) for Pixabay. Use of this photo is not endorsement from its creator.

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