State Department to Boost Science Expertise

The State Department now has a 12-step self-help plan for producing science-savvy diplomats. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel last week sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a dozen recommendations for rebuilding her department's depleted expertise in science, technology, and health. The department has asked former White House science advisor Jack Gibbons to help put them into practice.

The report, which Albright requested in April 1998, concludes that science-based issues--from trade in genetically modified crops to global climate change--are moving "to the forefront of the international diplomatic agenda" just as the State Department is losing technically trained staff. The number of full-time science counselors at embassies, for instance, has slipped from 22 in the 1980s to about 10 today. The panel also found it "striking and alarming" that foreign service officers assigned to the agency's roughly 300 science-related posts had "weak" academic credentials.

To reverse that trend, the committee, chaired by Harvard research fellow Robert Frosch, goes straight to the top. Albright, the panel says, "should articulate and implement a policy that calls for greater attention to [science] dimensions of foreign policy throughout the department" and should appoint a high-ranking aide to make sure that technical advice is injected into policy discussions. The panel also recommends setting up an external advisory committee, training all diplomats on technical issues, strengthening the department's ties with research-oriented agencies, and assigning 25 new full-time science counselors to key outposts abroad.

State Department officials won't say whether they'll do all that. Albright plans to meet with NAS president Bruce Alberts "as soon as their schedules permit," they say. But Ken Brill, acting head of the agency's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, notes that State Department officials have already asked Gibbons, who left the White House last year, to help a committee review the report and draw up a game plan by next spring. Gibbons will also help develop the science advisor's post and aid ongoing efforts to strengthen training, increase dialogue with scientists, and recruit more academics to serve stints as science fellows within several departments. But all that may be may be tough to do on a budget that has shrunk by 15% since 1993, says Brill.