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The slow boil of science

This week, for the first time in 18 years, the Office of the Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of Stateor STAS as we call it in science policy circles, suffered a major blow.  The Trump Administration let the last senior scientist walk out the door in an effort to render it ineffective. The office was created by Madeleine Albright in 2000 and it is codified in Congressional language, so it could never be technically “closed” (it would take an act of Congress). However, the effect is still the same, death by a thousand bureaucratic cuts–the preferred way of silencing initiatives in the federal government because it attracts less attention and you can never quite pin it on any one moment or decision-maker.  Since resigning from my career appointment at the State Department in January 2017, I have watched the Trump Administration roll back protections for the environmentdirectly and indirectly censor scientists, and propose budget and workforce reductions that impair science missions throughout government.  As someone who dedicated the last 11 years to building a strong science presence at the State Department, this process has been painful to watch from afar.

To be fair, STAS was never a large shop, nor was it charged with critical geopolitical decision-making as other parts of the department. But we were a committed team of experts effective at our mission of promoting science and technology considerations into foreign policy-making. For example, we partnered with scientific professional organizations to bring scientists into the department to advise on topics including water resource management, climate change, nuclear physics and more. This matters in diplomacy. Water availability can exacerbate tensions in places like the Middle East. You can’t sign climate agreements if you don’t know how long you have before sea level rise disrupts your economy. And you must understand units of radioactivity when negotiating an “Iran deal.”

{mosads}STAS also worked to advance women in science around the world. It kept leadership abreast of the latest disruptive technologies. We helped other countries develop their own science for diplomacy programs. We made America better through science and service, exerting the kind of leadership that America is capable of.

So how did such a lean but mean shop become such a threat that it had to be shut down? It didn’t, but scientists and engineers roaming the halls of diplomacy can be extremely inconvenient when you are pursuing a deregulation agenda supported by actions such as the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The closure was justified internally as a budgetary necessity, but at $200,000, and with in-kind support from universities and scientific societies, STAS gave a lot more than it took.

Three weeks after my departure, our third in command was informed her position would not be renewed. In a few more months, two other senior positions would be declined for renewal. This week, the two remaining science fellows completed their assignments and shut the lights off on their way out. Some STAS initiatives will be picked up by other offices, but others will simply disappear, leaving the department less prepared to face a world where the global pace of technology puts us in direct competition with allies and enemies like never before.

The demise of STAS is the proverbial frog boil. As we careen from one outrageous headline to the next, we have become numb to the dismantling of our processes for science-based decision-making across the government. Some of this may be repairable quickly, while some of it may take years to recover from. But our silence right now is deafening. Science seems to be playing defense and it’s hard to argue that it is winning. Einstein once wrote to a fellow physicist, “I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters…the situation in Germany shows whither this restraint will lead: to the surrender of leadership, without any resistance, to those who are blind or irresponsible.” Some of my colleagues maintain the view that civic engagement can bias the scientific endeavor. Others believe scientific responsibility involves speaking up for truth, and therefore, science. I believe that silence enables those with an anti-science agenda.

Last week, while the last STAS team members were saying their goodbyes, the White House announced the naming of the new Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier. After the longest vacancy in that post in recent memory, the science community was abuzz with hope that Dr. Droegemeier, might inject much-needed scientific rigor into the administration’s decisions. It has been hard determining where the University of Oklahoma researcher stands on climate change, and perhaps this is what made his appointment possible–but we all hope to hear from him when the water starts heating up.

Frances Colón, Ph.D., is the former Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State (2012-2017). She is a New Voices in Science, Engineering and Medicine Fellow of the National Academies and serves on the Sea Level Rise Committee for the City of Miami.


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