Science and Diplomacy, As Seen From the Diplomatic Front Lines


Science and diplomacy are two endeavors that may seem poles apart in the tasks undertaken and people who undertake them. However, from the viewpoint of one who knows, a veteran U.S. diplomat, it is time for diplomats to learn more about the world of science so that they can better represent their nations’ interests in the hot policy realms of public health and the environment. And scientists who care about the impact of science on society may well find a diplomatic career a good way to fulfill that need.

Sally Grooms Cowal, vice president of Population Services International (PSI), is able to bring two perspectives as a foreign policy practitioner that are relevant to the intersection of science and diplomacy. With a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University, Cowal became a career U.S. Foreign Service Officer and served at missions in India, Israel, Colombia, and Mexico and at the United Nations, from1971 through 1994. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton named Cowal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and later U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.

After leaving the Foreign Service in 1994, Cowal worked with the U.N.’s HIV/AIDS program as director of external relations. She now serves as PSI’s director of maternal and child health and the regional director for Latin America. PSI is a not-for-profit organization working in over 60 countries to improve the health of low-income and other vulnerable people.

Ambassador Cowal spent most of her career in the field of public diplomacy, which in a U.S. context aims to influence the opinions and attitudes of publics overseas that have an impact on American policies. PSI applies many of these same principles in a program it calls “social marketing” to change behavior of audiences in developing countries, particularly those behaviors that spread HIV and AIDS.

In tackling these kinds of issues, science and diplomacy really do come face-to-face, as Cowal explained in an interview at PSI’s Washington, D.C., offices–sitting at a table piled with condom samples. Cowal outlined four aspects of science and diplomacy, where policy practitioners need to be better educated on scientific developments.

Public health–affecting unlikely quarters

The topic of health, particularly the HIV/AIDS crisis, according to Cowal, has broadened the definition of national security issues. Most U.S. Foreign Service officers have traditionally not been asked to get involved in health policy ? that was until the HIV/AIDS issue came along. Then the proverbial can of worms opened.

Environment meets politics

If health issues can rock the boat, environmental ones are not far behind. Cowal admitted that “there isn’t a trade agreement these days that doesn’t get into environmental issues, and most of us know very little about them.” She noted that diplomats may not need to know the scientific details underlying environmental issues such as depletion of the ozone layer, but, even with experts available from other agencies, questions of environmental standards for water or air pollution keep coming up, and professional diplomats still must deal with them on the spot.

Understand the role of scientists in the power structure

Cowal remarked that in many countries scientists play an important role in the power structure and you need to be able to deal with them on their own terms. “You have to be able to talk the talk. And if you can’t you won’t be part of those conversations. If you can, you have access to hosts of people who have made their mark as scientists and who have power and influence in their societies.”

She described how in Israel, where she served as cultural attaché, she helped increase the number of Fulbright grants for scientists. Israel is one of those countries that put a high national value on scientific achievement and she recognized this potential.

Represent scientific achievement as a positive aspect of society

Cowal said that career diplomats need to understand enough about scientific advancement and achievement to discuss the topic intelligently and represent it as something positive about their society. She described this aspect of the science/diplomacy nexus as an important part of U.S. public diplomacy.

American public diplomacy had come in for criticism recently because of its ineffectiveness, traced to the low priority and limited resources in the U.S. State Department. That criticism intensified as international furor rose over the war in Iraq. Cowal said what is happening in Iraq “is not the total reality of what America is about.” Telling the story about America’s scientific achievement is not easy given the current political environment, but as Cowal noted, the limited priority and resources given to public diplomacy in the U.S. State Department has made the job even more difficult.

Publics worldwide are more attuned to environmental and health issues

Cowal said that the combination of environmental and health issues provides opportunities for publics to express their opinions on topics and in ways that are different from before, which is having an effect on public policy questions at the international level. She described how in Mexico (where she served as embassy public affairs officer) environmentalists created what she called “an opening in civil society” that expanded when a devastating earthquake hit their country in 1985. Cowal said the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (known by its Spanish acronym PRI) in Mexico at the time had shown itself unable to deal with the catastrophe, but it also exposed corruption in municipal building codes that allowed the construction of poorly built buildings which contributed to the high numbers of casualties and property damage.

It was well-known that Mexico was built on a major earthquake fault, Cowal remarked, and officially at least, the country had strict rules about construction, which many well-connected construction companies apparently ignored. The problems were compounded by increases in air quality concerns and water shortages that helped call into question and eventually overturn the monolithic power of the ruling PRI party that had been dominant for 6 decades. Cowal said these kinds of incidents show that “we have to be aware as diplomats of the political implications of crises in health for economic well-being, for political stability, for military power.”

Diplomacy–a promising career for scientists looking beyond the lab

Cowal urged young scientists to consider diplomacy–either in an official capacity or with a nongovernment organization like PSI–as an alternative to the traditional scientific career. She described the case of Peter Piot, executive director of the U.N.’s HIV/AIDS program, where Cowal worked after leaving the U.S. Foreign Service. Piot had a successful career as a microbiologist, including the discovery of the Ebola virus, and did some of the early research on AIDS in Africa. Piot’s research on AIDS helped counter claims that AIDS was a “homosexual disease”–the latter being a hypothesis based on the high proportion of early recorded cases occurring among the gay communities in San Francisco and New York City.

Despite having made his mark as a scientist, Piot chose to devote his life and career to politics. “Nothing is more political than a U.N. agency,” said Cowal, “but also nothing gets more political than the fight against HIV and AIDS.” Cowal added that Piot still enjoys going to scientific meetings and engaging in discussions about research. But as Cowal described, “Piot came to the conclusion how in his personal life he wanted a broader vision than what he could get by looking through a microscope.”

According to Cowal, Piot’s success is due in no small measure to his scientific credentials, which gives him immense credibility when talking about the damage done by HIV and AIDS. She also said that early-career scientists, who can take their expertise and combine it with a world vision, can find themselves interesting careers in the U.S. Foreign Service, the U.N., or elsewhere. “We should be encouraging those scientists who see their perspective as broader than the laboratory to get into the Foreign Service.”

What happens when science and policy disagree?

Cowal discussed how first and foremost diplomats need to act as advocates for official policies, but warned that problems can arise when the policies go against a respected scientific consensus. She noted that even when you do not agree with the policies, the job of the diplomat is to represent them in the best way possible. “This is what the president and Congress have decided. That’s our political system. ? My job is to make people understand what that policy is, and insofar as it’s possible to muster the arguments which indicate that it’s the right policy. ? Where you have more trouble is when the science is so clear and the policy is otherwise. I think that’s tricky.”

She gave as an example the recent decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not to approve over-the-counter sales of an emergency contraceptive drug known by its trade name Plan B, despite recommendations by two scientific panels assembled by FDA, a decision many observers see as driven by election-year politics.

Cowal pointed out that morning-after pills like Plan B are high-dose hormonal compounds that prevent a pregnancy from happening, not an “abortion pill” as some social conservatives had claimed. She said PSI distributes emergency contraceptives overseas in a number of countries where the drugs have been through public registration processes by national medical boards similar to FDA. In some countries it has required doing political battles. She cited Peru, where it took a change in government to get the drugs approved.

If you find yourself disagreeing strongly with what the government wants you to say, then you have to do some serious soul-searching. “If you’re in a position of taking the money to do a job, the job that you’re supposed to be doing is defending the policy your government has. You have to decide whether you can do that, or you can resign.”

Cowal recommends against making too much of a distinction between your own personal beliefs and government policies. “Free-lancing is not a good formula. When you’re abroad as a diplomat, the government you represent deserves to have you represent its policies the best way you can.”

Diplomats and scientists bring different kinds of knowledge and skills to addressing public policy issues. Scientists offer an emphasis on tangible and measurable evidence along with analytical abilities, whereas diplomats bring a world view and consensus-building skills to the table. As Ambassador Cowal indicates, both science and diplomacy can benefit from more interaction between these normally self-contained domains.

Editor’s note: Alan Kotok, Next Wave’s managing editor, is a former Foreign Service Reserve Officer with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA, which has since been integrated into the U.S. State Department), and is editor of the Web site . Kotok and Ambassador Cowal worked together in USIA and now serve on the board of directors of the USIA Alumni Association.

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