Backdoor Diplomacy: How U.S. Scientists Reach Out to Frenemies

Shopping can save your life.U.S. scientists helped open Cold War talks with the Soviet Union and continue to reach out to rogue nations.
U.S. scientists helped open Cold War talks with the Soviet Union and continue to reach out to rogue nations. (Image credit: American Association for the Advancement of Science)

Near the end of World War II, U.S. nuclear physicists asked a Japanese colleague if he could persuade Japan's leadership to surrender. Their message was parachuted in a capsule just before a U.S. bomber released the "Fat Man" atomic bomb over Nagasaki, and it ended up in the Japanese physicist's hands one month later.

Today U.S. science representatives reach out to fellow scientists in nuclear power-hungry North Korea and Iran as a way of breaking the ice and creating backdoor channels for talks. They also build closer cooperation with rising powers such as China and India and serve as U.S. envoys on behalf of President Barack Obama's scientific outreach to Muslim countries.

Few people know science diplomacy as well as Norman Neureiter, a senior adviser for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). A chemist in a past life, Neureiter headed the first U.S.-Japan science committee and became the first U.S. science attaché in Eastern Europe. He advised on scientific elements of historic agreements with the Soviet Union and China while serving in President Richard Nixon's Office of Science and Technology.

Neureiter also served as science adviser to two U.S. secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. He joined the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy in 2004.

Here are edited highlights of an InnovationNewsDaily phone interview with Neureiter.

InnovationNewsDaily: Many people talk about science diplomacy but they use different definitions. What's your definition?

Norman Neureiter: It does mean different things to different people. It's often equated with science cooperation, but I've been focusing on countries where relations with the U.S. are really bad. Science diplomacy is an intentional effort to engage with other countries where the relationship is not good otherwise. The science allows you to deal with non-sensitive issues that both sides can work on together for the good for all.

InnovationNewsDaily: President Obama proposed scientific partnerships with Muslim countries during a visit to Cairo in 2009. Has that worked out as a good example of science diplomacy?

Neureiter: President Obama made a pretty vigorous speech that really stirred up a tremendous positive response. U.S. envoys went around the world to listen to the interests and needs, came back and made recommendations. It was stated there would be three centers of excellence built or created: one focused on science policy, one on climate, one on water.

But the impression [among Muslim countries] is that things are moving too slowly and nothing much is happening because of funding problems. I was recently in Pakistan, and I heard from people in Egypt. A lot of their enthusiasm was giving way to an air of disappointment.

There is still a tremendous desire on the part of these countries to work with us. Science is an active way of reaching out to the Muslim world in an area where we know they admire us. There were polls done throughout the Muslim world in the early 2000s. Invariably, we ranked pretty high in terms of science and technology.

Even in Iran, 90 percent or so admired the U.S. for its science and technology. I was at U.S. State Department [at the time], and I wrote a memo saying, "Gee, what an opportunity." I think President Obama did a commendable thing in recommending scientific partnerships with Muslim countries.

InnovationNewsDaily: Iran has a pretty bad relationship with the U.S. these days. How has science diplomacy worked there?

Neureiter: If you look at Muslim countries today, Iran is second only to Turkey in the number of scientific publications. It seems appropriate if you believe in scientific engagement to try and engage with Iran. There is actually an agreement among the [U.S. and Iranian] science academies that began around 2000.

I got involved when [the U.S. National Academy of Sciences] asked me if I would like to be on a science policy delegation in 2004. My wife and I went around to [Iranian] universities and gave talks. We also visited science parks where young aspiring engineers or scientists who wanted to be entrepreneurs could try to develop their ideas as inventions.

There have been at least 20 workshops with Iran over the last decade on food-borne disease, earthquakes, solar energy and urban transportation.

Despite the serious disagreements over the nuclear issue and despite the sanctions, both the U.S. and Iranian [science communities] have maintained their relationships. There is enough solid science on both sides so that this engagement is really of mutual benefit.

InnovationNewsDaily: Speaking of mutual benefit, China and the U.S. have a long history of science and technology cooperation. Do you think that will change with the growing sense of competition?

Neureiter: Two years ago, we had the big anniversary for the U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement that was signed on January 31, 1979. Today the combined science cooperation among Chinese and U.S. institutions, plus the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S., is greater than that of any other country partnership. We've trained 1 million Chinese students, including two thirds in science and technology.

Now you hear people starting to worry as China has advanced scientifically and technologically. There are a lot of articles about China taking over. I personally feel that there's no alternative in the long term except for more cooperation with China, so that we can tackle some of the grand challenges facing the world. Energy, climate change, food security – these are all big issues that we can certainly work on together. When we have 9 billion people on the planet, if we don't cooperate we're going to kill each other.

Despite people saying, "You're a fool about China, they're trying to take us over," I feel very strongly about cooperation. If you do cooperate, you have to be very realistic. Each country should act in its own interests, but it should also find areas where cooperation is possible. I think we should seize every opportunity for constructive, mutually beneficial science cooperation with whomever.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.