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Advances In Science Propel Optimism

This blog highlights excerpts from Dr. Sutyajeet Soneja’s 20x20 presentation at the AAAS Visualizing Science Policy Summit on October 17, 2018.

Reflecting upon my time as a 2016 to 2018 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, I have come away with a renewed sense of optimism around the ability of science to address some of the most pressing issues we face today. I served my fellowship at the U.S. Agency for International Development (also known as USAID), which is the main agency for U.S. foreign assistance, and I also served for a period at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, Italy. I’m an engineer and a public health scientist by training and fully recognize the power of scientific discovery for change. But when I first heard the AAAS motto, “Be a Force for Science,” I have to admit my first thought was “That’s really dorky!”

What I did not expect from my fellowship was to encounter people that have such an incredible amount of optimism as beneficiaries of investment in science and how they would reinvigorate my optimism and make me recognize that I needed to embrace and champion the “Be a Force for Science” motto.

While at USAID, I got to spend a part of my time in Liberia. It is one of the poorest countries on Earth and its citizens have experienced devastating events such as civil war, food scarcity, and deadly epidemics. With limited infrastructure -- for instance, 90% of its roads are unpaved -- it has got a long way to go towards its development.

USAID and other organizations have been making strategic investments in Liberia that are helping to advance its scientific capacity and enabling the Liberian people to deal with many of these issues on their own–ultimately helping to advance greater stability in the region.

While in Liberia, I worked on strengthening their health systems so that health shocks, like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that infected nearly 30,000 people killing 40% of them, don’t occur again. The Ebola outbreak exposed major weaknesses in Liberia’s ability to address infectious disease outbreaks on their own. Investments being made to enable mobile communication between its 5,000 government healthcare workers, many of which are in remote locations, and additional efforts to strengthen digital disease surveillance are positioning Liberians to be less reliant on foreign aid and reduce the potential of an infectious disease outbreak in one region spreading to other parts of the world.  

Now on the surface, investing in science to promote better health outcomes sound great. But the power of this engagement didn’t really register until I was on the ground in Liberia—working with Liberian health & education workers, USAID Liberian staff, or even the local Embassy driver—when I really started to appreciate what investments in scientific funding meant. Not just for working with Liberians to prevent disease outbreaks but also how working together on science and technology has instilled in them an infectious and profound sense of optimism that things can get better and that seeing progress in scientific capacity propels their optimism and drive to keep working to improve their country.

There is also more than just science and technology to make the world a better place and what I want to call your attention to specifically is science diplomacy. Science diplomacy is defined as the use of scientific collaborations among nations to build constructive international partnerships to address common problems. It is an apolitical language. It can bring together allies and adversaries to harness technology and innovation to address cross-border challenges, which may not be able to be addressed by any one nation. Examples of the use of science diplomacy include informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice to address issues such as the limitations around geosynchronous orbiting satellites or the spread of infectious disease.

It is something that on the surface I paid very little attention to before my fellowship.

While I did have some interactions in this realm in Liberia between USAID and the Liberia Ministry of Health, I gained a true appreciation of the importance of it while serving at the U.S. Embassy in Rome last Fall. During my time at the Embassy, I was provided with the opportunity to represent the U.S. Government and support U.S. Foreign Service Officers, who staff embassies around the world, in a variety of functions that taught me the importance of science diplomacy. For example, I represented the U.S. Government at several events highlighting science cooperation engagements between the U.S. and Italy—such as attending the inauguration of an experiment at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, which is a facility located inside of a mountain in Eastern Italy and is the biggest and potentially one of the most important underground research centers in the world. The event I attended celebrated a 12-year ongoing collaboration between scientists from the Italian National Institute of Physics and U.S. Department of Energy, where they are working together to significantly advance the field of particle physics.

I had several other opportunities that reinforced the importance of the relationship between science and diplomacy. Some examples include serving as a member of the U.S. delegation for the G7 Health Ministerial summit in Milan where I got to see firsthand how countries are prioritizing health threats and what they intend to do about it, or getting to share information with the Italian National Institutes of Health to illustrate evidence-based approaches to tackle growing threats such as antibiotic resistance or adapting to the health impact from a changing climate.

We live in a world that has many issues, such as equal access to health care, wide gaps in wealth and socioeconomic status, and a rising anti-science culture. Despite that, my fellowship experience has reaffirmed my optimism that the melding of science and policy can take on all of these challenges.

Science is a system for exploration and innovation and is the engine of progress and prosperity. It can fire our imagination, promote cooperation, fuel economic growth in a responsible manner, and most importantly, serve as a symbol of hope. Combined with active and proper dissemination, it can serve as part of an equation for creating a successful, prosperous, and more inclusive society. 

So to the folks at AAAS that came up with the “Be a Force for Science” motto, I would like to issue an apology for my earlier criticism; and on the contrary, nice job!

To my fellow scientists, my ask is simple: get engaged! Talk to policymakers and more importantly those out of your comfort zone to help others understand how scientific achievements in your fields are making a difference and to recognize how it is driving optimism for continued progress.

My fellow scientists, as you continue to work towards bigger and better things, keep being a force for science. But more importantly, be a force for optimism.

Image credit: Sutyajeet Soneja

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