Benjamin Franklin might have been on the short list for a Nobel Prize if there had been such a thing during his lifetime. The amazing breadth of his contributions stands out even today: he worked in areas ranging from the science of electricity to the wave theory of light to demography, meteorology, physical oceanography and even behavioral science. Franklin was also the first U.S. ambassador to France. His reputation as a scientist galvanized his popularity in Europe and helped him secure France's support for the fledgling nation.
Franklin's example is a reminder that we need scientists for today's challenges in diplomacy and development and not just because of their expertise—we need them because their skills, networks and ways of thinking about problems represent the best of what America can offer the world.
Over the past 75 years our academic institutions, the majority of our most innovative companies and the public at large have benefited from sustained and directed investment in research by the federal government. The vision of what the government could undertake when the risks were too great for any other entity was informed by a post–World War II mindset about the role of science in American life. Since the 1940s taxpayer dollars have supported a broad portfolio of basic research that has undergirded long-term American prosperity and security, including faster and more efficient airplanes, the Internet, genomics, weather satellites, vaccines, and so much more.
As a result, the U.S. has an untapped reservoir of talent to bring to its international relations. America's scientists have high-level technical expertise and creative problem-solving abilities. The best of them have a facility for communicating complex ideas and social networks that are important for public diplomacy, and the U.S. will need diplomats with an abundance of these assets. Moreover, the credibility of the upcoming generation of American scientists will be invaluable on the world stage: even though international opinion of the country has reached record lows, U.S. science and ingenuity are still deeply respected.
Even with a richness of talent, we still need more opportunities to integrate scientists into the front lines of U.S. embassies and missions abroad. Programs such as the fellowships offered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science can place postdoctoral scientists throughout the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to address pressing problems in diplomacy and development. Scaling up this type of program would have a significant impact in these areas. At USAID, the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research have built hundreds of collaborative programs to date, in conjunction with American scientific agencies, aimed at building long-term engagements and connections across the wider scientific community.
Science-focused diplomacy works because science is a distributed, global enterprise with products that can be replicated and verified and that can inspire. It can create the scaffolding that allows our official relationships to thrive by providing trust, transparency and engagement that would otherwise be hard to achieve. Many foreign scientists trained in the U.S. climb to leadership roles in their home countries. Engaging through science can form bridges over divisions in geography, religion, culture and language, and it can help other countries meet real needs—especially when emerging threats fail to respect political boundaries. Finally, as global connections make national economies increasingly intertwined, science diplomacy can create avenues that sustain competitiveness and promote economic growth in the U.S.
Given the protracted challenges on the horizon for U.S. foreign policy, science provides a path through the planetwide crises we are facing, and it also gives our country a way to put its best foot forward. After all, many of the values that scientists share are also historic American values.