Historically, science has been used by nations to gain military and economic advantage. The role of science and scientists took on another dimension during the Cold War of the last century. U.S. scientists continued to communicate with their counterparts behind what was called “The Iron Curtain”—an almost forgotten term today. Ongoing communications between scientists in the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as between scientists and their respective governments, have been credited with keeping the Cold War cold and for laying the groundwork for eventual dialogue between Reagan and Gorbachev.

In the immediate wake of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, both the U.S. government and philanthropist George Soros invested significantly in the science and scientists of the former Soviet Union, albeit for rather different reasons. Under the leadership of Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, Congress established the Cooperative Threat Reduction program in 1991, with the objectives of disarming nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and finding employment for Soviet weapons scientists. In 1992, philanthropist George Soros founded the International Science Foundation, which funded travel and research grants.

Within the State Department, the Office of the Science Adviser to the Secretary of State was established by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000 in response to a National Research Council study titled “The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy.” Under the leadership of the first Adviser, Dr. Norman Neureiter, the number of active scientists in the department began to grow through expansion of the AAAS Science Diplomacy Fellows program. The Jefferson Science Fellows program was established by the second Adviser, Dr. George Atkinson, initially with funds from the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation.    Jefferson Science Fellows are tenured professors at American universities who come to the State Department for one year with salary support from their own university and local living and travel expenses paid by the State Department. Fellows consult for the State Department for an additional five years after returning to their home institutions.

As the third Adviser, I have promoted the concept of science diplomacy as a powerful means of bridging political and ideological differences to address the common problems facing humanity and build constructive, knowledge-based international partnerships. But science diplomacy isn’t just statecraft—it can be done by scientists and engineers everywhere. The challenge of connecting scientists in other countries, be they developed or developing, with American scientists and scientific expertise should increasingly become part of every scientist’s job. We need to make global service—what I’ve called science diplomacy—a part of what we do as scientists and engineers, whether we work in a government agency, a university, a research institute or a company. We need our scientists and engineers, our experts of all kinds, to help us jump the digital divide and create a world where all people have the educational and economic opportunities to build and live in sustainable knowledge societies.

By Nina Federoff

Dr. Nina Fedoroff is Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State and to the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. She is also is a Professor at Penn State University. Dr. Fedoroff is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the European Academy of Sciences. She has served on the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation. Dr. Fedoroff is a 2006 National Medal of Science laureate.