Rex Tillerson must display dedication to science diplomacy
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Policymakers who are preparing this week to vet Secretary of State nominee Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHillicon Valley — Blinken unveils new cyber bureau at State Blinken formally announces new State Department cyber bureau Hillicon Valley — TikTok, Snapchat seek to distance themselves from Facebook MORE, former chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, should ask him questions about the role that science, technology and innovation play in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy.


Few people recognize that the Department of State is in many ways a science agency. Tillerson, as the head of a corporation largely based on science and technology, may realize that science is embedded in many, perhaps most, international issues and that decisions based on scientifically established evidence will be more likely to succeed for him and the president.


Of course, the Senate will consider many, many factors in determining Tillerson’s readiness to serve as secretary of State, and a critical question will be how effectively he will use the science and technology assets, within the Department of State and outside.

He should use those assets to ground his decisions in good science and to build diplomatic bridges on international scientific relationships.

Americans have always recognized the value of science to foreign policy — even during the Revolutionary War when commanders of the opposing forces allowed U.S. and British scientists to move back and forth across battle lines.

In 1972, President Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai took advantage of science diplomacy at the end of the Cold War, by leveraging science and technology as a major part of efforts to normalize relations between the two nations.

Today, international research collaborations between the United States and Cuba are focused on how best to fight cancer and predict hurricanes. U.S. scientists are exchanging information with their counterparts in Arabic-language regions who have a keen interest in water desalination, food security, drought response and other cross-border environmental issues.

Infectious disease also crosses borders, and research efforts to combat public-health crises such as the Ebola and Zika outbreaks must therefore involve scientists from many countries.

The devastating West African Ebola crisis of 2014, described by the U.N. Security Council as a “threat to international peace and security,” triggered a swift and substantial global response. The scourge of Zika prompted a similarly international research effort, which has already resulted in potential vaccine candidates.

Climate change is yet another science-based global challenge requiring the best efforts of scientists worldwide — a point that ExxonMobil seemed to acknowledge in a statement that described the historic Paris climate agreement as “an important step forward.”  

The Senators should make certain that the nominee pledges to use the best available evidence on climate change in making policy — not unsubstantiated and fringe beliefs.

The ability of scientists to work across borders is clearly essential to U.S. public-health and environmental goals.

More broadly, science diplomacy benefits foreign policy in somewhat less obvious but no less important ways: Whether we are engaging with Russia or China or Cuba or any other country, we are strongest when we can leverage our signature asset, American ingenuity and when scientific exchanges provide the basis for cooperation.

At the same time, a peaceful world can never be achieved if too many regions remain impoverished, which is why the State Department, often through its Agency for International Development, has worked to bolster the science and engineering capacity of developing nations.

For people in developing nations, science represents a pathway to empowerment. The United States is uniquely positioned to collaborate effectively with other regions based on shared scientific goals, which offer neutral starting points for discussion.

Long before the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Cuban Academy of Sciences were quietly working to keep research partnerships alive.

Now, scientists from both countries are working together on projects encompassing biomedical science, autism and other neurodegenerative diseases, agriculture, ocean conservation, environmental research and more.

Cuba exports various vaccines, antibody-based drugs and other biomedical technologies. Ever since Cuban scientist Carlos Finlay and U.S. researcher Jesse Lazear at the end of the 19th century unraveled the role of the mosquito that transmits yellow fever, U.S.-Cuban collaborations have paid off in significant ways.

As Senators continue to vet Rex Tillerson’s ability to lead the U.S. Department of State, the potential of science, technology and innovation as a primary driver of economic growth, scientific progress and global security should be central to their inquiries.

Rush Holt is chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. He served for 16 years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing New Jersey's 12th Congressional District.

Tom Wang is the association’s chief international officer and director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.