American Association for the Advancement of Science and The World Academy of Sciences: A Course on Science and Diplomacy

Vaughan Turekian
Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary 
Trieste, Italy
July 11, 2016

Remarks as Prepared

It is a pleasure to be here with you all today to discuss the exciting landscape and intersection of science and diplomacy.

Thank you to the organizers of this event for the invitation to address this distinguished group. I even get the honor of sharing the stage with Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya.

It is always so enjoyable to be in Trieste. This city and the science institutions it houses are a testament to the importance of bringing a diverse set of actors together to address some of our greatest challenges. Over its storied history, Trieste has drawn on the culture of Italy, Austria, and Slovenia to produce innovators and creators, while also providing the world with amazing cuisine.

The institutions of TWAS and ICTP have brought together some of the best minds from the South, the North, East and West to push the fronts of knowledge to make the world a better place.

It is in this light that I want to focus my remarks on the central role of science, technology, scientists and technologists in building a more sustainable world.

Last September, the United States and 192 other nations formally adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (also referred to as the “global goals”) at the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in New York. In his speech at the Summit, President Obama committed the U.S. to pursuing the goals domestically and internationally.

The SDGs represent a universal agenda: they apply to both developed and developing countries, and set measurable targets for all nations to achieve by 2030.

Each of the 17 global goals has specific targets to measure progress for every country in the world. These goals speak to a broad range of directions the world needs to go to promote economic, environmental, and social well-being.

While different countries may focus on certain goals, we believe that coordinated implementation of all 17 in harmony is critical because the goals are interdependent. Achieving one will only be possible by achieving all.

Governments have committed to achieving all of the Goals, and partnerships with civil society, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and citizens will all play an essential role in realizing the full potential of the SDGs.

Science, technology and innovation (STI) and information and communication technologies (ICT) underpin the achievement of all of the SDGs, whether it is expanding access to health services and quality education; improving food security; and access to clean water and sanitation; building transparent, accountable, and stable institutions; empowering women and minorities; or promoting the sustainable management and use of renewable energy and natural resources.


Implementation of the global goals will depend on mobilizing investment from all sources, including through partnerships with the private sector, domestic agencies, and international institutions. In July 2015, governments underscored their widespread acknowledgement of this need through their adoption of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.

In Addis Ababa, countries came together to define three core elements of a technology facilitation mechanism (TFM), to support the development, diffusion, and uptake of technology to support sustainable development efforts. The mechanism is comprised of three parts:

  • The creation within the UN system of an Interagency Technology Transfer Team (IATT) which draws on more traditional UN science, technology, and innovation elements complemented by a 10 Member Working Group to help mobilize civil society and the scientific community to achieve the SDGs.
  • A call for the creation of an online platform to enable the rapid dissemination of science, technology, and innovation information to address challenges. The goal is to connect innovators and technologists with resources and end users of their technologies.
  • And finally, a multi-stakeholder STI Forum. The Forum, of which I co-chaired the first meeting in New York last month with my distinguished colleague Ambassador Macharia Kamau, the Permanent Representative at Kenya Mission to United Nations, is an innovative way to engage not just governments and diplomats on science, technology, and innovation for sustainable development, but also academia, industry, NGOs, and civil society.
    • The STI Forum is explicitly a multi-stakeholder forum where various groups can learn from each other, make new connections, share good practices, and facilitate the development and diffusion of science, technology and innovation under appropriate conditions in a way that advances progress toward achieving the SDGs.

The importance of STI for achieving sustainable development is widely recognized as critical and cross cutting by many countries and stakeholder groups. It is also clear that achieving the SDGs cannot be accomplished with the traditional focus on technology transfer, but rather by recognizing that technology development, diffusion, and uptake can and does happen from a variety of sources. The talent and resources to harness STI are diverse and multifaceted, and not the domain of any one institution or country. Discussions at the forum also made clear that to accomplish the global goals, governments need the help of nongovernmental stakeholders.

I have been in my position as the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State for almost a year. In this time I have been awed by the creativity, innovative spirit and inspiring examples of how scientists, engineers, and innovators are working on technologies that can help achieve the SDGs everywhere I visit.

When I was in Ghana in March of this year, I visited the University of Mines and Technology in Tarkwa where I learned how engineers are developing new technologies to reduce the use of mercury to extract and recover gold in small scale gold mines.

Applying science, technology and innovation to environmental challenges is critical, as many countries work to utilize their natural resources in a more sustainable manner.

Also while I was in Ghana, I visited researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, at their Crop Research Institute.

There I saw scientists working with farmers to diversify the varieties of crops available and to create varieties that can withstand disease and drought.

What the trip to Ghana also highlighted is the need for enabling infrastructure – like reliable power, roads, and connectivity—to allow scientists, engineers and innovators to do their work.

For example, the biotechnology laboratory at the Crop Research Institute spends 30 per cent of its budget on electricity, and uses generators to ensure reliable power. With more reliable access to sustainable energy, they could dedicate more of their budget to research and developing new crop varieties.

Emerging and exciting technologies—robotics, 3D printing, and internet of things—will never flourish unless we also address basic infrastructure and governance issues.


Another area of diversity that is important for achieving the SDGs is to mobilize stakeholders.

When I was in Armenia last month, I visited the Aygek Secondary School in Aygek village, which was set up and run by the Union of Information Technology Enterprises (UITE). The School is part of a program to provide maker spaces where the next generation of innovators can start training, learn to take risks, and see technology creation as a space of play at a young age.

Next door, in Georgia, I visited a tech park incubator run by Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency that aims to building the institutional structures needed to foster innovation and economic development in the country.

A diversity of stakeholders and partnerships is needed to bring together the range of talent necessary to harness STI for the SDGs in different ways. Great ideas can come from anywhere, and we need models of collaboration that can foster creativity and allow ideas to be matched with funders and users.


Seven years ago, my office, along with NASA, USAID, and Nike, formed the LAUNCH innovation platform to help link innovation with an entrepreneurial ecosystem that works to help ideas thrive.

LAUNCH is a network-centered innovation platform founded on the belief that the problems of today are too big to be solved by any one organization alone. A unique approach is to convene and curate networks of individuals and organizations to forge pathways for change together.

The mission of the program is to build and nurture a community of innovators, thought leaders and decision makers across innovation value chains to collectively understand, articulate and scale solutions for positive systems change leading to a more sustainable society and world.

There are three active initiatives going on right now: 1) Closing the Loop; 2) Chemistry; 3) Food Revolution.

For example, to “close the loop’ LAUNCH has teamed up with its sister organization, LAUNCH Nordic, to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable society. To meet this goal, we seek innovations with the potential to create the shift towards closed loop systems and a circular economy.

LAUNCH Nordic is a partnership hosted by IKEA Group, Novozymes, Kvadrat, The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (3GF), The Danish EPA; Region Skåne. In collaboration with pioneering Nordic and Global companies and organizations the program helps scale disruptive, sustainable innovations within materials science and manufacturing.

A notable innovator that is going through the process is Florence Kamaitha, founder of Pad Heaven. Statistics show that in Kenya alone over 900,000 schoolgirls coming from poor backgrounds cannot afford to buy commercial sanitary pads. This leads to girls missing 3.6 million school days per month.

This amazing innovator developed a method of producing sanitary pads from left-over banana stems, otherwise an agricultural waste product. This product is both biodegradable, environmentally friendly and creates local jobs in Kenya.

The LAUNCH program is helping this company grow to scale and hopefully establishes a foothold in the marketplace.

This is a great example of how bringing together a diverse group of people and organizations, that all have different value propositions, can work to gather to tackle global challenges.


Across the State Department, we are intensifying our focus on building bridges with science, technology, and innovation communities so that efforts to make the world healthier, wealthier, safer, and wiser are empowered by the ingenuity and talent of the world’s technologists and innovators.

Through a new initiative called the Innovation Forum, we are convening regular conversations between senior policymakers and global innovators to strengthen this connectivity���������—���������allowing innovators to inform foreign policy at the highest levels and foreign policy priorities to spark and accelerate new ideas.

Earlier this year, we focused on one of our most urgent challenges – the risk of losing an entire generation of Syrian children due to lack of access to education. We brought together over 100 humanitarians, coders, policymakers, designers, innovators, and educators at Stanford University to help identify ways to use science, technology, and innovation to significantly expand access to education for Syrian refugee children.

Last week, my office convened, with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an Innovation Forum on the topic of genome editing. As the genetic material of plants, animals, and humans becomes easier and cheaper to manipulate, a range of game-changing health, environment, and agricultural applications are possible. Advances in genome editing technologies also raise foreign policy questions around security, trade, and ethical use.

All of the challenges we face as a global community cannot be tackled by governments alone. All of us – including governments, industry, civil society, and private citizens – can play an important role in identifying and implementing solutions.

The most effective policies are ultimately based or at the very least informed by science and technology. At the Department of State, this is the driving principle that created my position. We work to ensure that the senior leadership has seamless access to the best information possible. We work with organizations like AAAS and NAS to bring science and engineering into the agency. At any moment we have between 200 – 300 Ph.D. scientists within the Department of State.

This year we launched a network of science and technology advisers to Foreign Ministries. As more foreign policy issues like the SDGs and innovation rely on access to science and technology, more and more access to adequate and timely advising will be built into foreign ministry S&T capacity.

There are now five countries with advisers – the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Japan, and the newest member Senegal. We are working with other countries and stakeholders who have expressed interest in S&T advising to their foreign ministries. This network enables us to learn from each other, share opportunities so that more foreign policies can be informed by science and technology.

It is the forward looking part of science and technology which allows us as policy makers to look around the corner to identify places and topics where collaboration can help avoid conflict or challenges. This is the best example of anticipatory science diplomacy.

During your week in this course, I hope that you all gain a greater appreciation for the value and role of science and scientists in diplomacy.

I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I am looking forward to a very productive meeting.