The Role of Science Diplomacy in International Crises; Syria as a Case Study

Vaughan Turekian
Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary 
Washington, DC
June 1, 2016

Remarks as Prepared

Thank you to AAAS and to all the wonderful speakers who have shared their collective knowledge and experiences today. It is great to be back here.

Past Experience with Syria Science Community

Before becoming Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, I had the privilege of leading AAAS’ science diplomacy efforts. During that time, in 2009, I traveled to Syria with a delegation that included a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, and other distinguished scientists and science policy leaders.

After a decade of frozen relations, there was hope, albeit small, that the United States and Syria could develop avenues of cooperation. We met with local scientists, university presidents, young entrepreneurs, government technocrats. The head of the Syrian side was a UK-based cardiologist who also happens to be the current dictator Bashar al Assad’s father-in-law.

We briefed Asad’s father-in-law on the conservations we’d had with others in Syria which revolved around building links on solar energy; water limitations; agricultural productivity; nursing training and university accreditation.

The father-in-law said that while Asad believed each of those issues to be important, he was more focused on building authentic research universities; connecting government funding of scientific research to support said universities, and creating a means for new innovation and entrepreneurship to thrive thereby building a knowledge-based economy.

Our hopes for such movement were bouyed when months later, a brilliant U.S.-educated Syrian science diplomacy fellow returned to Syria, as a result of our meeting.

She believed that science was central to resolving societal challenges and was tirelessly committed to training young emerging leaders – like the ones we visited just months before – to be the engine of positive change for Syria.

Those hopes were dashed when Asad brutally repressed peaceful protests for change that came with the Arab Spring.

We envisioned that bright scientists, like the visiting scholar mentioned earlier, would return to their homeland to work on cooperative projects designed to build and sustain economic growth. Instead, they were thrust into the effort to identify and dismantle chemical weapons while living in fear of persecution and in horrifying humanitarian conditions.

Even with such setbacks, I am convinced that scientists and engineers can and should play an important role in helping to end the crisis that is leading to large numbers of displaced Syrians, Iraqis, and others throughout the region.

What Science, Technology and Innovation can do in the short-term (STI)

Science, technology and innovation are not silver bullets, but can be employed to build the capacity of those affected in order to confront the challenges they are faced with now and also to rebuild in the aftermath.

One example of the effort to document and stem the destruction of cultural heritage in the region: AAAS, State Department, American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency have funded projects that analyze high-resolution satellite images to document the targeted destruction of Syrian and Iraqi cultural heritage sites. Complementary efforts are also being carried out by volunteer and academic communities who are training local citizens to protect artifacts and digitally recreate artifacts.

Another is the efforts of the European academic community to integrate Syrian refugees into their new European home institutions. Their ‘Science4Refugees’ program has helped connect refugees and asylum-seekers with science backgrounds to welcoming universities. The universities, such as the University of Strasbourg in France and University of Leuven Germany are advertising jobs, internships, and training programs for the refugees through the platform.

Here in the U.S., the Institute of International Education (IIE) Scholar Fund is doing great work to preserve the brainpower of hundreds of scholars, threatened in their home countries, and place them in host partner institutions in 41 countries.

The International Education Scholar Fund enables scholars to continue their academic work while sharing their knowledge with students, acting as mentors and partnering with the broader academic community. Since 2011, the program has awarded fellowships to 70 Syrian scholars.

One of those scholars, Hassan Al-Jabbouli, who we heard speak today, is a testament to science diplomacy that will pay dividends in the future. He’s an example of strength and perseverance.

Another is Refaai Hamo, a Syrian scientist who arrived in Detroit in December 2015, as a refugee, after seven of his family members were killed in Syria when a missile struck his home. He was a special guest of President and Michelle Obama’s at the State of the Union Address this year, wherein the President and First Lady honored him as a survivor and as an innovator who is giving back.

Refaai has used his technical expertise to create a mechanism for generating electricity from train movement on the Istanbul metro. He also sketched a plane that can fly 48 hours without fuel, and has been working on a device that can predict earthquakes two weeks in advance.

It is imperative to support and nurture these innovators, even as they are displaced, because they add new ideas to the global innovation ecosystem. When we support these diaspora scientists, we make the global science community stronger.

At the State Department we are committed to connecting the power of science, technology and innovation to help us solve some of our most pressing diplomacy and development challenges.

To this end, in January 2016, the Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, convened an Innovation Forum of humanitarians, coders, policymakers, designers, innovators, and educators to address the problem of access to education for refugee children.

For a full day the group brainstormed about virtual training programs to help teachers address the challenges of educating children exposed to drama and violence and more. The event provided a useful model for cross-sector collaboration and inspired new multi-disciplinary ideas to address a unique challenge. As a result, a microsite was launched to serve as an organized repository for information, ideas, and commitments on various projects put forth by the tech and NGO communities.

Science diplomacy is one piece of a larger puzzle to address the problems magnified by political turmoil.

In order for science diplomacy to be most effective, we must think strategically about proactively setting up networks now, so that we can be even more effective when crises erupts again. We need a community of science and technology experts and policy-makers who are prepared to deploy in the event of disaster or civil unrest- in a coordinated fashion.

Long-term solutions through STI

Environmental stresses exacerbate the desperate living conditions of those in a refugee camp or the movement of people to flee war in their homeland.

The effects of climate change are profound in Syria; once a net-exporter of wheat, the country has suffered from a diminished rainfall in the Jordan Basin that has resulted in a sustained drought since 2006, spurring social unrest and instability. By 2011, hundreds of thousands of farmers abandoned their fields and livestock and migrated to urban areas, in search of reprieve. Food insecurity, the loss of agricultural livelihoods, and migration from rural to urban areas fed into discontent with the Asad government

In order to address water shortages and its domino effects, Syria and the region can harness and channel the expertise of scientists and engineers who can advise on improvements to sustainable agriculture, underwater resource management, and irrigation technologies that must be made. Those challenges are now interwoven with those of movement of displaced people and refugees.

This is the type of challenge that will not be solved in the near-term and will require strong academic institutions supported by sound science policies that bring the best and brightest to the solutions table.

We have many examples in our history where we have charted a path post-conflict, rebuilding trust and building new ties.

Our once contentious relationship with Vietnam has been replaced in recent years with one of engagement and diplomacy.

Last week, President Obama visited Vietnam and announced the lifting of the arms embargo in Vietnam, which had been in place since the 1960's and a new business deals between the two countries including the purchase of 100 Boeing Aircraft. "Just a generation ago, we were adversaries and now we are friends," Obama said.

These developments are built on a legacy of post-war education and science partnerships. This has made foreign direct investment an attractive proposition. In 2010 Intel opened a $1B factory in Vietnam.

In addition, Arizona State University and a consortium of partners including USAID, Intel, founded The Higher Engineering Education Alliance Program (HEEAP) in 2010 to modernize and bolster Vietnam’s engineering and technical vocational universities.

Since HEEAP was launched, over 2000 Vietnamese faculty have benefited from in-country workshops and ASU-led trainings in the United States. Vietnamese universities educate and graduate their students with work-ready skills that make them competitive in the global market.

Our own U.S. Science Envoy Program, which sends esteemed scientists and engineers abroad to engage our country partners on common areas of interest, sent one of our very best to Vietnam to continue this science diplomacy legacy. Dr. Geraldine Richmond, Chair of the Board of AAAS, traveled to Vietnam numerous times as a Science Envoy for the U.S. Government and leveraged her network and expertise to build and strengthen research collaboration networks between scientists and engineers in the United States, Vietnam, and the Mekong region. In recognition of her scientific and diplomatic efforts, last week she received the National Medal of Science from President Obama.

Even further back in our history, science diplomacy has facilitated the cooperation of scientists towards averting deadly conflict. Concerned scientists of all political persuasion collaborated in post-World War II period to address the threats of nuclear weapons and their proliferation.

Committees on international security and arms control in both the United States and Russia spurred unlikely communication between scientists of both nations and these talks are credited with paving the way for President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev to come to the table.

Anticipatory Science Diplomacy

As the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, I have the privilege of working with scientists, engineers, and innovators to harness their talent to take on global challenges, such as clean water, renewable energy, better education, food security, or biodefense against dangerous pathogens.

As the challenges have evolved, so too, as scientists and policymakers, must our analytical thinking to ensure the best solutions. Part of my mandate is creating that durable space in which science diplomacy is not only a reactionary tool, but also an anticipatory one – building those networks that will be at the ready.

There are several multilateral fora where these conversations are actively happening. One is the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UNSCTD) where governments share how they are working to harness science, technology and innovation to meet development challenges.

The last meeting of the CSTD earlier this month in Geneva reviewed results of a foresight study on digital technologies such as robotics, massive open online courses, and the internet of things, looking forward to how emerging digital technologies may fit into their development trajectories.

The governments of Rwanda and Iran also responded to recent Science, Technology and Innovation Policy reviews, conducted by the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), examining how each country’s institutions, laws and policies, workforce, and infrastructure need to be improved before each country can fully realize the benefits of science, technology and innovation for their economic development but also to respond to the unpredictable.

The new Science Technology and Innovation Forum, which came out of the new Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, is another place to surface and grow science and technology talent from around the world. An explicitly multi-stakeholder platform, the Forum builds networks between innovators, civil society, academia, foundations, and governments around the world to share experiences and surface new models of innovation in pursuit of sustainable development.

This is an unprecedented use of multilateral fora for science diplomacy that if strengthened can help build our collective resiliency to future crises.

On the bilateral front, in February, together with Japan, New Zealand, and the UK we launched a new Network of Science Advisers to Foreign Ministers to promote evidence-based foreign policy decision-making in countries around the world. Since then, Senegal has appointed a science adviser to foreign affairs and the Lounsbery Foundation, Tufts University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, have launched a science diplomacy workshop for government officials in the fall.

As we pivot towards the future, I believe science and technology can help us plan for the unpredictable. Let’s be ready.

Thank you.