Science Policy & Funding News

Restore State Department Science Capacity, Expert Urges

Former State Department science adviser highlights value of science diplomacy and raises concerns about the department’s direction.

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The Trump administration should not allow more time to pass without reestablishing a science advisory capacity within the State Department, according to Vaughan Turekian, who served as science and technical adviser to the secretary of state from September 2015 until this past July.

The position he held remains vacant, and no effort has begun to find a successor, according to Turekian, who discussed the critical importance of science advice within the agency last week.  He gave a 14 December keynote address on these topics at the American Geophysical Union’s 2017 Fall Meeting in New Orleans, La. He spoke with the press after his talk.

Turekian served as the fifth science and technology adviser to the secretary of state since the position was established in 2000. The position was subsequently maintained by every Democratic and Republican administration. However, Turekian expressed concern about whether the Trump administration, which has been slow to fill some key science positions, will name anybody for the slot.

“I feel fairly passionate about the fact that there is great value in having a science capacity that’s robust within the State Department,” he told Eos after his speech. It gives U.S. diplomacy a competitive advantage “given the range of issues that science and technology and its applications actually have related to foreign policy,” including climate change, the economy, and security, said Turekian. He currently serves as senior director of the Science and Technology for Sustainability Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Turekian, who advised the secretary of state on international environment, science, technology, and health issues affecting U.S. foreign policy, noted the important role that geoscientists play in helping to tackle many global issues and in advancing diplomacy. He mentioned, for instance, the critical contributions of science diplomacy during the Cold War, in the development of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, and with regard to climate change.

“Unlike any other issue, climate change—characterizing it, understanding its causes and impacts, and identifying ways to address it—has provided a critical link between geoscientists and global policy,” he said in his keynote address.

Positions Unfilled

Noting that several important positions remain empty at the State Department, Turekian said the question of which political appointments will get filled is a major concern. Turekian said that if you also factor in the administration’s desire to cut the State Department’s budget by about a third, “that is going to have implications for even what that agency is doing going forward.”

The Transition to the Trump Administration

The White House transition from Obama to Trump has led to a big difference at the State Department that goes beyond staffing issues, according to Turekian.

The Obama administration put significant focus on global engagement and big global concerns such as climate change and the state of the oceans. It also had the structure it wanted in place, he said. However, the Trump administration, he noted, “has less of a focus on those global issues and also is changing the structure of the organization in a way to focus on a smaller number of priorities.”

“All institutions need to be rethought all the time. That’s part of the process,” Turekian said. But he cautioned that some actions, such as reducing an agency’s scientific expertise, can “lead to an erosion of capability.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), Restore State Department science capacity, expert urges, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO089283. Published on 19 December 2017.
Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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