Science and research as foreign policy

Researchers are like 'mini diplomats', says Frances Colón, Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State, during her University of Helsinki visit.

The coral reef between the US and Cuba is in a poor way. To remedy the situation, American and Cuban marine biologists are working in close collaboration, despite the countries’ tense relations.

Frances Colón, Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State, sees the coral reef project as a model example of science diplomacy, which combines science and international politics.

“When solving problems with their international colleagues, researchers are like mini diplomats representing their countries,” said Colón when speaking at the University of Helsinki in late October.

“If we wish to find solutions to great challenges such as climate change, the state of the oceans and the maintenance of the International Space Station, we need both science and politics,” Colón asserted.

Science and research promote democracy

Education also works as grassroots diplomacy. People who move abroad to pursue studies or research often maintain close ties with their home country and thus pave the way for intercultural understanding.

As an example, Colón described a programme in which the US grants women from developing countries scholarships to women-only colleges in the US.

“Many then go on to mixed colleges,” she added.

Research methods also help to spread democracy.

As Colón continued: “The approaches in research and democratic decision-making have much in common. Researchers rely on peer reviews; politicians on public consultation.” Transparency is important in both methods.

Advancements under Obama

Established in 2000, the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser of the US Department of State now houses around 130 researchers in different fields.

“We are also in touch with universities and research institutions, when needed,” Colón explained.

In addition to the Secretary of State, the Office provides advice for the administrative branch as a whole. According to Colón, policymakers give full weight to research and scientific data when making decisions.

“Look at climate change measures, for example, where we have come a long way since the 1990s,” she pointed out.

Colón believes that President Barack Obama’s advocacy of science has been a big help. The two legislative bodies – the House of Representatives and the Senate – meanwhile, feature politicians with varied opinions on science.

“My role is to support the executive branch in particular,” she explained.

Do not blog to colleagues alone!

Colón was invited to Finland by the Committee for Public Information in Finland and the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists. When addressing postgraduates at the University of Helsinki, she encouraged researchers to discuss their work with people from other fields.

“In my ideal world, researchers blog and talk with each other as well as the public at large,” she said. “Research education should also include science communication. The more understandably you present your topic, the more readily will decision- and policymakers listen to you.”