Science diplomacy is one of the most promising areas of innovation for how to deal with the great transnational challenges of this century, including nuclear disarmament, climate change, food security, disease, and many other aspects of international peacebuilding. USIP’s Sheldon Himelfarb talks about the issue.

January 20, 2011

Science diplomacy is one of the most promising areas of innovation for how to deal with the great transnational challenges of this century, including nuclear disarmament, climate change, food security, disease, and many other aspects of international peacebuilding. On January 19th and 20th, 2011, USIP co-hosted a major program with the National Academy of Science's Committee on International Security and Arms Control entitled "Reykjavik to New START: Science Diplomacy for Nuclear Security in the 21st Century."

USIP's Sheldon Himelfarb talks about the issue.

Tell us more about this unique program on January 19-20, 2011, and what issues you are tackling?

This was an exciting meeting for a couple of reasons.

First, we brought together distinguished members of the American and the Russian Academies of Science, along with other prominent experts in the field, to reflect on the role that collaboration between scientists played in nuclear security across the 80's and 90's, and distilled insights from their collaboration that might be of value going forward.

New START was a great way to signal a new era of cooperation; we'll use this meeting with some of the most experienced people in this field to look for the specific "success factors" in what occurred before, as well as mistakes to avoid going forward.

On a more specific level, there was a good deal of discussion on monitoring and verification measures, because they were areas where scientists were instrumental in figuring out ways to enhance communication and confidence-building - which will remain one of the persistent challenges in the 21st century. But again, here too, we will look at a very perplexing issue not merely as a technical issue but one where using the lens of "science diplomacy" might produce better results. For example, how can scientists from different nations, working together despite adversarial political contexts, make progress? Issues of verification, fissile materials security, more proliferation-resistant forms of nuclear energy, and more will be on the table.

Scientists, particularly those with specific experience in nuclear-related science diplomacy, represent a relatively small community that does not frequently meet to discuss these issues. This conference sought to develop updated and new modes of cooperation between American and Russian nuclear scientists, and then expand the boundaries to address the nuclear issues of the present and future, including India-Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and others.

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Where do you see science diplomacy going in the new year?

These are exciting times for those of us working at the nexus of science diplomacy and peacebuilding. Rarely have we seen such high profile expressions of hope and support for science diplomacy as a tool of conflict management, as we have from this administration - starting with President Barack Obama's Cairo speech in 2009, where he gave science diplomacy a special role in helping to set our relationship with the Middle East and the Muslim world at large on better footing. And then, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appointed three scientific luminaries as "science envoys" to engage more extensively with the Muslim world in scientific and technical collaborations. More recently, the administration followed through by requesting new funding for global engagement programs like this - and appointed a new class of science envoys to spearhead outreach to other countries outside of the Middle East - including in South and Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia/Caucuses.

So clearly our political leaders have great hopes that science diplomacy will help to ease tensions around the world, and we share this optimism in the year ahead. It won't be easy; we need to learn a lot more about why some scientific and technical collaborations morph into powerful peacebuilding initiatives and why others do not, for example. And how can we leverage these scientific and technical collaborations before conflict has become intractable. These are tough questions, but the good news is that we see more and more people starting to ask them as we go into the new year. We certainly will continue to work on them with partners such as the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineers throughout the new year and with our networks in other countries.

Furthermore, the upcoming Seoul Nuclear Summit, continuing concerns about Iran and North Korea, ongoing India-Pakistan challenges will inevitably spotlight what scientific cooperation can contribute to non-proliferation in the years ahead. But just as the issues are too big an issue for one country to solve on its own, so too scientific cooperation needs the wisdom of many.

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