Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters Students touch a gas filled glass ball creating a plasma sphere in Berlin, November 7, 2008.

Hardly Academic

Why Diplomacy and Science Need Each Other

At U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s side when he negotiated a framework nuclear deal with Iranian diplomats this spring was physicist Ernest Moniz, U.S. secretary of energy. His presence spoke to the rise of “science diplomacy,” which can take the form of scientists helping diplomats, diplomats helping scientists, or scientific cooperation promoting diplomacy. 

The Iran case is the most vivid recent example of the first form. The implementation of any eventual agreement will require an exquisitely designed regime of sensors and inspectors capable of flawlessly alerting the world to potential cheating. And any evidence they present will have to withstand searching critiques by scientists and engineers around the world. Moniz’s role in the talks, in other words, was not only to add to the debate with the Iranians but also to help the West design a scientifically robust monitoring system. Without him and other scientists, verification of Iran’s bad (or good) behavior would be impossible. 

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Lausanne, Switzerland, during negotiations with Iranian officials on the country’s nuclear program, March 2015.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Lausanne, Switzerland, during negotiations with Iranian officials on the country’s nuclear program, March 2015.

Scientific advice plays a similar role in crafting agreements on other global issues, ranging from weather and climate change, management of the global commons, cyber security, and even trade and public health. Indeed, the underpinning of almost every durable treaty is such expertise, something that then Secretary of State George Shultz had in mind when he said in a famous 1984 cable to all diplomatic posts: “The revolution in communications, energy, environmental sciences and other aspects of science and technology has … imparted an importance to [science and technology] considerations in foreign affairs undreamed of a generation ago.”

It is hard to overstate just how much researchers in almost every discipline need diplomats. With that in mind, since 1984 and especially in the 1990s, the U.S. State Department has created the role of science and technology adviser to the secretary; strengthened the Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and International Scientific Affairs; created interagency networks for scientific advice; and, directly and indirectly, brought scores of scientists and engineers to work into both the State

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