Science Builds Bridges, Not Walls, Diplomacy Experts Tell UA Audience

Speakers at a recent University of Arizona conference -- including a Nobel laureate, ambassadors and advisers to secretaries of state -- know firsthand how science can build trust where politics cannot.

In times of diplomatic turmoil and combative negotiations, scientists and engineers will continue solving problems and seeking the truth, speakers affirmed at a recent University of Arizona summit on science diplomacy and policy.

“When others deny climate change, ask for the evidence,” said Norman Neureiter, a former staff member in the White House Office of Science and Technology and the first science and technology adviser to a secretary of state. “It is scientific evidence that is essential for setting sound policies. Science is how we know the truth, how we understand the natural world. It is not an ideology.”

Neureiter was involved as an interpreter in private discussions with scientists on nuclear weapons testing with the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and as a participant in semiconductor negotiations with Japan in the late 1980s. 

Scientists and engineers played a critical role in reaching final agreements, he said.

Neureiter spoke at a panel on February 21 to kick off the conference, which focused on climate change and water sustainability in the Americas. The conference was co-sponsored by the UA College of Engineering, Office of Global Initiatives and other programs and chaired by Kevin Lansey, head of the UA Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.

More than 130 students, scientists, engineers, foreign diplomats and local residents attended the panel at the Tucson Marriott University Park.

Sharing Knowledge, Seeking Common Ground

“We have a responsibility to share our knowledge with people in countries throughout the world, whatever our diplomatic relationships may be,” said Peter Agre, recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. He has led scientific delegations to Cuba, North Korea, Iran and other countries that have strained or nonexistent diplomatic relations with the U.S.

Agre, director of the Malaria Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, shared stories and slides from his research programs to eradicate malaria in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and other African nations with authoritarian regimes.

“These countries are rich in terms of minerals, but they bear a staggering burden from malaria, which kills approximately 400,000 children each year worldwide,” he said.

He offered a rare glimpse inside North Korea, which he has visited three times as the head of delegations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science to teach students, meet scientists and facilitate research collaborations at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

“We shared stories about our research and hopes for our children and our grandchildren,” said the former AAAS president. “Friendships can make a difference.”

Agre met with Fidel Castro as head of a U.S. scientific delegation to Cuba in 2011. “There were obviously many things we disagreed on,” he said, “but Castro understood that science would play an important role in advancing Cuba’s economy and lifting its people. That was one thing we could agree on.”

In 2012 he led a AAAS delegation to Iran. “Overall, it was a very positive visit,” Agre said in an article for AAAS. “Our meetings with faculty and students were always positive -- it seems to me that we all have a lot to share….From a scientific viewpoint, the doors are certainly open.”

When tensions did arise, the delegates focused on constructive science engagement.

“We weren’t there to apologize or criticize; we were there to talk about science and to find common ground,” he said.

Premier Ambassador of our Time

Thomas R. Pickering, vice chairman of a consulting company and former U.S. ambassador to seven countries -- including the Russian Federation and Israel -- and the United Nations, had to cancel his planned trip to Tucson to participate in the panel. So his address about his storied career spanning six decades was delivered via video.

In introducing him, E. William Colglazier, a former science and technology adviser to secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and the honorary chairman of the UA conference, called Pickering the “premier and most well-connected American ambassador of our time.”

Pickering, a participant in some of the most consequential diplomatic developments of the 20th and 21st centuries, considers the Iran nuclear agreement an important contribution to science diplomacy.

“This agreement might become the international gold standard for reaching agreements with developing nations,” he said. “It calls for surveillance from uranium mining extraction to disposal of spent fuel rods and ensures 24/7 knowledge of what is happening in the Iran nuclear program. It highlights the need for acceptance to compromise, on both sides, and could be an important guide for future negotiations with developing countries.”

Rare Opportunity for UA Students

“It is incredible for undergraduate students to be able to interact with such important scientists and policy experts,” said Estefanie Govea, who has a UA bachelor’s degree in political science and is pursuing a second bachelor’s in environmental and water resource economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Unless you are well-connected, most undergraduates miss out on great opportunities like this.”

She is one of several UA students, most in the College of Engineering, who served as rapporteurs and will write conference proceedings to be submitted to the AAAS journal Science & Diplomacy and ensure that all conference presentations are posted online.

During the Wednesday evening panel Q&A, speakers expressed apprehension about how the Trump administration’s travel bans and proposed budget cuts might hamper scientific research and innovation.

“America up until now has been a haven for thousands of scientists and scholars who have come to the U.S. to escape persecution and conflict elsewhere,” said Neureiter, an adviser at AAAS. “They have made huge contributions to America’s technical and scientific excellence.”

He added, “I have serious concerns about threatened cuts in various government department budgets. America must not fall behind in scientific research, engineering and innovation. These disciplines are vital for the future growth of the U.S. economy and for the health and well-being of the American people.”


Top picture: At the UA conference, the Sonoran Institute's Francisco Zamora, left, discussed collaborative research between the U.S. and Mexico on sustainable water resource management.