Can Science Be Used As A Diplomatic Tool?

Some moon craft house instruments from a handful of countries — an example of international scientific collaboration. But how valuable is science in the diplomatic sphere? Biologist Nina Fedoroff, former science adviser to both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, talks about her time in Washington.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

It's not always so easy for nations to get along, but sometimes science can bring countries together, as it has many times in the past. Let me give you a few examples.

There was the Cassini-Huygens mission, sent to investigate Saturn and its moons. Seventeen countries collaborated to build the craft and all of its instruments. Okay? There was India's unmanned moon mission in 2008, which carried not only Indian payloads but instruments designed and built by NASA, Germany, Poland, Norway, Bulgaria. And of course, there's - there's the name: the International Space Station. That says it all.

But besides space, aside from space, how big a role does science play in international cooperation and diplomacy? Can it help build more and better relationships among nations and address some of our common problems?

My next guest served as science and technology advisor to both Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, and she's here to help us answer some of those questions.

Nina Fedoroff is the Evan Pugh Professor of Biology at Penn State, visiting professor at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. She's also the incoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, which is meeting this week in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Fedoroff.

Dr. NINA FEDOROFF (Professor of Biology, Pennsylvania State University): Hi, I'm just delighted to be here. I have always enjoyed your program and thought it would be great fun to be on it. Here I am. Thank you.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much. You're welcome. Can you give us a few of the things - when you go head to head, or you're knocking brains with Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Clinton, what kind of things do they ask you or need your advice for?

Dr. FEDOROFF: Well, I did all kinds of things. But I think just to hit the highlights, with Condi and the administrator of USAID and the head of the undersecretary of the Department of Education, we organized a global conference of university presidents to act - just to ask the question of how universities could do better at what Tom Friedman calls flattening the world - that is to equalize educational opportunity, to promote collaborative research and so forth.

FLATOW: But a lot of these answers, I imagine, are long-term projects.

Dr. FEDOROFF: You bet.

FLATOW: How do you get politicians or people in government offices who can't think further than two or four years ahead, when the next term -how do you get them to commit to such long-term ideas like this? It must be very frustrating.

Dr. FEDOROFF: Well, fortunately, it's not entirely necessary to have politicians sign on to these issues because basically, science is a global enterprise. And in the age of telecommunications, direct contacts are just incredibly common between scientists in different countries.

I have personally published a paper with someone whom I didn't meet until years later. So collaborating, exchanging data, all of that stuff, even collaborating face to face, is something we can do now. We don't need for politicians to sign on.

However, as you pointed out, history - in the course of very recent history, science has actually played a very stabilizing role, particularly, for example, during the Cold War. And, in fact, conversations among physicists, between physicists in the former Soviet Union and the U.S. and between the physicists and their leaders is routinely credited with keeping the Cold War cold.

So people like John Holdren, like whoever becomes the next science advisor in the State Department, are very important in alerting the politicians to the consequences of what they do or don't do.

FLATOW: And what kind of skill did you need to use most as a scientist and I guess...

Dr. FEDOROFF: Patience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FEDOROFF: Patience, persistence. You know, the biggest problem is that those of us who love science and who do it as a way of life are most persuaded by something we call the weight of the evidence.

But for somebody who's not - doesn't have a science background, sometimes they think this is just another point of view. It's very hard to bridge that gap.

FLATOW: And that is increasingly becoming - you put the right words there, that science is increasingly becoming just a matter of opinion.

Dr. FEDOROFF: Yes, and it - frankly, it isn't. And how to communicate -how you communicate the notion that after a certain point, the countervailing opinion doesn't matter is a real challenge to all of us scientists. It's a challenge in global climate change. It's a challenge in the area that I'm most familiar with, which is the issue of genetically modified organisms.

But Ira, could you do me for a favor for just a moment and let me tell the audience about the wonderful things that are happening here in Washington, staged by the AAAS?

FLATOW: Go for it.

Dr. FEDOROFF: Okay. So the AAAS is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and it's got its annual meeting, which sounds very forbidding. But I always think of it as the country fair of science.

And what I'd like to people in the immediate vicinity of Washington and in Washington, is that AAAS is having family science days on Friday and Saturday. It's a huge event in the convention center. It's free to everyone. And it really will have all kinds of performances and demonstrations of science-related art and science that will attract children of all ages, young and old.

FLATOW: Now, we're familiar with the AAAS meeting. We had been going to that meeting for almost 20 years. But our own budget cuts don't allow us to go where we'd like to go anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FEDOROFF: Well, this is the 177th annual meeting, would you believe? Anyway, so people are welcome, and that's really what I wanted to tell you. There are also free lectures today, tomorrow and Sunday at 5 o'clock and again open to the public.

FLATOW: Do you think that the public appreciates science as much as they used to? Or, I mean, we have issues of global climate change, evolution, things like that. We have congresspeople entering this term, and half of them don't believe in a lot of science that's accepted by scientists.

Dr. FEDOROFF: Don't even believe in evolution.

FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, how do you as a scientists, and as someone - as head of this huge organization, face that?

Dr. FEDOROFF: We face it every day, and we do more and more and more, everything we can do to communicate. So for example, this meeting that we've having has easily 5,000 or 6,000 registrants already, and 1,000 of those, more than 1,000, are news people.

So it's important for all kinds of science writers and communicators to learn about the exciting stuff that's going on and to communicate it.

It's really important for kids to be exposed to science, and what -rather than dwelling on what's gotten worse, why not think about what's gotten better? I mean, this past summer, we had a science fair in Washington that attracted thousands and thousands - it was just mobbed.

And science fairs are popping up, not only all over this country, but also all over the world.

FLATOW: But we hear that there - I've seen at least one newspaper article that said that there are fewer science fairs going on in schools now.

Dr. FEDOROFF: That could be with budget cuts because they cost money.

FLATOW: And the fact that, as you see, the education cuts are rampant all over the country, not to mention just science classes. I mean, it must be very depressing.

Dr. FEDOROFF: I choose to keep working on it because that's all I can do. I think it's enormously important for us to be better educated in science. I do what I can, and all of my colleagues do what they can. It's hard not to get discouraged, but it's important that we not get discouraged.

So if you want to come back to the question of science diplomacy and of - I mean, one of the things that I did when I was in the State Department, because of my background as a plant biologist, was talk a lot about genetically modified organisms to people all over the world.

FLATOW: They don't accept it very well all over the world.

Dr. FEDOROFF: It depends on where you go. When I went to Brazil, the farmers - the farmers actually pushed the government into approving it. India's getting pretty close to approving its first GM food crop -cotton, GM cotton has taken off in India like crazy. China's getting there.

And, you know, we've been doing it. We've been growing - commercially growing GM crops for 15 years now, and so far, nobody's even gotten a headache from them. So dispelling the rather peculiar urban legends around them is a really important thing to do.

FLATOW: But there are cases where these crops have, so to speak, leaked out of the farms where they were started, or the fields, and gone to other places no one thought they would go to.

Dr. FEDOROFF: No.

FLATOW: There are no cases of that?

Dr. FEDOROFF: No.

FLATOW: I beg to differ.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FEDOROFF: Crops don't leak out. We have domesticated crops over a very long period of time, like tens of thousands of years. And crops get - seeds get carried. Sometimes, if they're very small seeds, they get scattered off trucks. Pollen travels.

FLATOW: That's not leaking? That's what I would call leaking out.

Dr. FEDOROFF: But they're still the same plants. And they're domesticated plants. They're not wild plants. So you can talk about it as leaking, but I don't know what that helps. It doesn't - it's not like agricultural plants take over the...

They're not weeds. They're not invasive weeds. They're highly domesticated crop plants. So they - in some cases, if you've got last year's crop that comes up in the field when you don't want it to come up, it's called a volunteer. It's a management problem. It's not an ecological problem.

FLATOW: Nothing to worry about?

Dr. FEDOROFF: No. In fact, I would say that - point out that the European Union - in Europe they're not very well-accepted. People really turn up their noses at GM crops.

EU has spent hundreds of millions of euros on 25 years of research, and the summary sentence in the recently issued report is: After 25 years of research, 500 independent research groups, there is no more risk associated with genetic modification than other forms of crop improvement.

FLATOW: And there's the last word, Dr. Fedoroff. Thank you again, and good luck with your new appointment at the AAAS and the meeting this week.

Dr. FEDOROFF: Thank you.

FLATOW: Nina Fedoroff is the incoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We're going to take a break and change gears and come back and talk about building the subways, a lot of engineering, a lot of hard work. Your questions. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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