The Obama administration has embraced the concept of science diplomacy as a way to bridge cultural and economic gaps between the US and the world. The director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, John P Holdren, regularly meets with his science policy counterparts from Brazil, China, India, Japan, Korea and Russia. The US has sent a series of scientists abroad as ‘Science Envoys’ in hopes of using scientific relationships as an olive branch to the Muslim world.
This new interest in science diplomacy is explained by the nature of contemporary problems: issues of resource distribution, climate change, and uneven economic growth can only be solved with input from science. Climate change, for instance, does not respect international borders; addressing it will require international partnerships. Nor do American scientists hold a monopoly on good ideas. For these and a host of other reasons, science diplomacy promises benefits for the countries on either end of scientific exchange.
But science diplomacy programmes also draw on a long tradition that holds science and scientists as qualified to spread American ideals. In the 1960s (the last time that the US made an effort to use science diplomacy to build international partnerships), the concept was marred by ties to propaganda campaigns and intelligence operations. The idea was that foreign elites who adopted the values of science — objectivity, internationalism, the free exchange of information — would be more receptive to US overtures more generally. This assumption drove most US science diplomacy throughout the Cold War.
When government sponsorship was explicit (“overt”), neither intelligence gathering nor pro-American reporting would have come as a surprise: anyone agreeing to participate in a US government-sponsored scientific meeting, circa 1962, probably knew what they were getting into.
Things got much murkier when the foreign policy establishment turned to groups of private citizens as ambassadors for science. An oddity of the history of American diplomacy is that the US conducted its Cold War cultural campaigns through arms-length arrangements. In a few cases, the groups engaged in so-called “private diplomacy” really were unaffiliated, but – more often than not — organisations touting their “independent” work on behalf of the US government received help, usually with financial support channeled through fake philanthropic foundations. The pass-through strategy was common in US international activities from approximately 1948 until 1967, when an article in Ramparts uncovered the CIA’s covert funding of the National Student Association (a youth organisation), and caused a major foreign policy scandal.
The Obama administration’s resurrection of the concept of science diplomacy offers enormous potential. But, once again, the intelligence establishment has found in science diplomacy a convenient cover for its own needs.
The CIA’s use of a fake vaccination campaign in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the subsequent withdrawal of aid workers from Pakistan over fears for their safety, are all too familiar. Once again, covert operations are threatening to derail genuinely helpful, hopeful activities that might otherwise go a long way toward building international goodwill.