William Colglazier: Science is a tool of diplomacy

William Colglazier (left), science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State, tours the neutrino experimental area. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Editor’s note: William Colglazier, science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State, gave a colloquium at Fermilab on May 21. In this Q&A, he offers his views of science, diplomacy and how each can serve the other in improving our world.

How does science fit into the State Department?
Science diplomacy is really important to the State Department. "Science diplomacy" is kind of the term we use for how science can be helpful to diplomacy, using science as a tool to advance diplomatic goals, but it’s also diplomacy advancing the scientific enterprise.

Many international collaborations all have to have agreements with other countries, and the State Department is the key in helping negotiate that. It’s also involved in advancing U.S. science by helping overcome problems such as with visa issues and other things where collaboration can be hindered by policies of governments.

It may be that scientists want to have access to some unique research environment that doesn’t exist in the United States, for example in ecological areas. Diplomacy can be very useful in helping advance scientific goals.

There are a lot of people in the State Department that have scientific backgrounds, which has grown over the years. Being there for three years, I’ve learned that science is even more of an asset to diplomacy than I appreciated, and I was sympathetic to begin with. Other countries do want to engage with our government agencies, but often even more so with our universities, our national laboratories and our companies.

How can science be used as a diplomatic tool?
Science is actually a great strategic asset for American diplomacy because other countries do want to engage with us. We’re the world leader in science and technology. Engaging with countries using science as the tool, the connector, is a great way to influence their science, their behavior, their investments. I deal with a lot of countries now, and with every country I talk with, no matter the level of development, the first thing their governments want to talk about regarding science and technology is the connection to innovation and economic development.

You might say, “Does that make them tougher competitors if we help them get more capable?” But my view is that it’s in the U.S. interest to have countries more knowledge-based, to use science as input into their policy decision. That’s clearly in the U.S. interest.

In countries where the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations — Iran, Cuba — the State Department is very supportive of using mutually beneficial scientific cooperation to keep a channel of communication open. With the encouragement of the State Department, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has been engaging in several workshops a year with the Iranian scientific community. And many of the Iranian delegations come under a great program with the State Department called International Visitor Leadership Program. So the State Department has actually provided some of the financial support to enable Iranian scientific delegations to meet in the U.S. with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Every country realizes — the light bulb has gone on — if they’re going to have a chance at a stable, secure, prosperous future for their people, they’re going to have to upgrade their capabilities in science and technology. They’re willing to look at their investments and their policies and their regulations.

People who come from totally different backgrounds, governments, cultures — science really does become a common language. A lot of the values you learn by doing science — the excellence and sharing information and trying to find the truth — all those kinds of things fit well with the same values that support democratic governance. You can stretch that too far, but I think that by spreading the values of science — inquiry, evidence-based thinking — it helps create the seed in autocratic societies about aspiring to a more transparent, democratic system.

What about fundamental research?
All the technological advances that we’re living with in this century came from basic fundamental research in the last century — solid state physics, nuclear physics, biological sciences, the genome. The crown jewel, in my view, is ensuring that we have significant resources going in basic, fundamental research. To stimulate innovation, a lot of countries focus solely on the applied research, on things that are very close to the marketplace. How do we get them over that hump? They’re neglecting or not putting sufficient resources into the fundamental research, which might not only lead to things that are unanticipated, but also it’s how you train the next generation.

What message would you give to Fermilab scientists?
There are great opportunities for nongovernmental scientists and nongovernmental scientific institutions to use science as a tool for helping improve relations between countries.

One of the mentors in my career was Sherwood Rowland, who got the first Nobel Prize for an environmental issue. It was about a threat from chlorofluorocarbons to the ozone layer. He devoted a fair amount of his time, this was in the 1980s, advocating for what became the Montreal Protocol, which is really the treaty that began to outlaw CFCs.

Scientists on the Manhattan Project during World War II saw the advent of nuclear weapons presenting a great threat to humanity, and several of them spent a fair amount of their time outside of science. In that period they were really engaging with scientists in the former Soviet Union, asking how you control nuclear weapons in arms control agreements. And when Gorbachev became head of the Soviet Union, it turned out his science advisors were all the scientists the American scientists were engaging with in these discussions during the worst part of the Cold War. So these discussions had great influence on what happened when there was this window of opportunity in terms of government relations.

Even if scientists never have a desire to work in the government, they also have a very important part in terms of using science diplomacy for these very positive goals through collaboration. Engaging countries in high-energy physics I think is a great example of science diplomacy.

Leah Hesla

View a video of Colglazier’s colloquium talk.