The year 2020 has been a sad reminder that predicting the future is hard. At the World Science Forum in November 2019, I ended an optimistic talk on “Twenty Years of Science Diplomacy” with my list of the most important issues for science diplomacy to address.  I did not include a worldwide pandemic.(1)

Every four years the U.S. intelligence agencies produce a report on Global Trends that is released after the presidential election. Each report looks to the future in examining mega-trends, game-changers, and potential worlds .  The 2012 report, Global Trends 2030, listed a number of “black swans” that have a low likelihood annually but could be greatly disruptive globally.(2)  Here are two of the black swans in that report: a severe pandemic and a US global disengagement. These two turned out to be interconnected and cataclysmic for 2020.

With COVID-19, I was stunned that my country was unable to act early and effectively in responding to the threat.(3,4) The U.S. failures were not just the fault of politicians even though our President has much to answer for — his malfeasance made even more graphic by the revelations of Bob Woodward’s new book.(5)   Significant failures were also made by major scientific institutions (with testing, PPE stockpiles, etc.).  The failures were also more than just the science-policy interface.  Large segments of the American public have viewed the pandemic as a hoax, and many have been unwilling to wear masks or social distance. The interacting failures among science, policy, and society resulted in many more deaths, much misery, much greater economic cost, and significant damage to the U.S. brand and influence internationally.  It affected U.S. national security and science diplomacy. A number of other countries did much better.

As the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State from 2011 to 2014, I had many interesting conversations with scientists and officials around the world looking to strengthen capabilities in science, technology, and innovation (STI) and science advisory ecosystems.  Most countries were focused on this task deemed crucial for their security, prosperity, and competitiveness. The U.S. reputation for STI was then an asset for our science diplomacy.  I stressed the importance of having a strong science advisory ecosystem with expert scientific advice from the scientific community to government leaders and the public.

In reflecting on the COVID-19 failures, I was reminded of something that I had forgotten to emphasize in those earlier discussions. For important policy decisions, what matters as much – if not more so – than science are culture, values, ethics, trust, leadership history, and politics.  They are powerful determinants of decisions. Weaknesses arising from these factors can only be altered by the will of the public and its leaders.

For American culture, individualism and individual initiative have been very good for our innovative capacity and our economic vibrancy.  They have not been so good for social cohesion in dealing with a pandemic, especially when aggravated by politicians that divide the country, ignore science, and do not tell the truth.  Changing aspects of a culture without political leadership is difficult.(6)

The challenges at this stage in the pandemic are especially complex because of the uncertainties regarding the future path of the virus, the economic impact, individual behavior, availability of a vaccine and therapeutics, and government policy. It is clear that countries are relying on science to help us escape from this pandemic. Once again science, technology, and innovation — in partnership with policy and society — are essential at the national and global level.

What then is the role for science diplomacy? Many foreign ministries are now paying close attention to science diplomacy. I have asked science counselors and diplomatic professionals in several foreign ministries what now is their highest priority in science diplomacy.  The universal answer is vaccine diplomacy.  

The UNDESA policy brief “The COVID-19 pandemic: a wake-up call for better cooperation at the science-policy-society interface” highlights several priorities where science diplomacy can help not only with the pandemic but with many of our global challenges.(7) Science diplomacy can facilitate the sharing of knowledge and data internationally, promote collaborative research, ensure universal access to solutions, and encourage nations to act with greater urgency on global scientific assessments related to our challenges.  

One of the greatest successes of science diplomacy was the Montreal Protocol.  But it was not science alone that made the difference.  Getting support for the Montreal Protocol in the U.S. required the science of Rowland and Molina, the technological advances in new refrigerants made by private companies, and the persistent leadership of the science diplomats in the U.S. State Department during the Reagan administrations.(8)  As reflected in the Paris Climate Accords, we need an international partnership among science, policy, and society to deal with climate change.

To effectively connect our pandemic responses to our global goals, science diplomacy can help by promoting objectives such as: (1) ensuring COVID-19 rescue funds accomplish the multiple goals of eliminating the pandemic, restoring livelihoods, and achieving greater sustainability of our societies, (2) reducing barriers to international scientific collaboration and enhancing international collaboration and coordination among countries, (3) strengthening public trust in science, and (4) reducing inequalities in societies.(9)  All four tasks are absolutely essential for the making the world more resilient and sustainable.  

What about the five issues that I highlighted in 2019 where there is a need for science diplomacy to provide new pathways for progress?  They are also important:

  1. Controlling new technologies of war, which can be used by nation states and terrorists, and advancing arms control treaties to reduce the dangers and proliferation of these weapons (e.g., nuclear weapons and delivery systems, autonomous weapons utilizing artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons creating the fear of first strike, cyber weapons and offensive information warfare, biological weapons, etc.),
  2. Providing foresight and facilitating dialogue on the implications of rapid technological developments that can be disruptive (good and bad) to societies in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative consequences and threats from technological advances (e.g.,  AI, gene editing, synthetic biology, robotics, big data, blockchain, social media, etc.),
  3. Maintaining a channel of communication between nations that have estranged relations and conflicts and a potential for a new Cold War (e.g., Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, etc.),
  4. Accelerating progress on the global goals, especially the global environmental goals (climate, oceans, biodiversity), to safeguard our planet and help countries understand and commit to their share of global responsibilities, and
  5. Building capacity in science, technology, and innovation in developing and emerging economies to help them achieve their social, economic, and environmental goals.

Science, technology, innovation – in partnership with policy and society — are essential for achieving a prosperous, secure, just, and sustainable future for all countries and the world.  Science diplomacy can help us in that quest.(10) 


(1) E. William Colglazier, “20 Years of Science Diplomacy,” Keynote Lecture, World Science Forum, Budapest, November 2019. The text is in the appendix of reference (4).
(2) National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, December 2012.
(3) E. William Colglazier, “Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Catastrophic Failures of the Science-Policy Interface,” Science & Diplomacy, April 2020.
(4) E. William Colglazier, “America’s Science Policy and Science Diplomacy After Covid-19,” Science & Diplomacy, July 2020.
(5) Bob Woodward, Fear, Simon & Schuster, 2020.
(6) An interesting example of scientists becoming more actively involved in politics while appealing to core societal values is the statement on “Scientists in Defense of Democracy.” It was issued in advance of the U.S. presidential election and signed by over one thousand American scientists.  [Note: A link can be provided here when the statement is public.] (7) United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Policy Brief No. 62, “The COVID-19 pandemic: a wake-up call for better cooperation at the science-policy-society interface,” April 2020.
(8) Greg Whitesides, “Learning from Success: Lessons in Science and Diplomacy,” Science & Diplomacy, September 2018.
(9) E. William Colglazier, webinar talk, “Sustainability and the SDGs: Promoting a Dynamic Science-Policy Interface,” NASEM IIASA Sustainability Webinar, September 14, 2020.
(10) E. William Colglazier, “Science Diplomacy and Future Worlds,” Science & Diplomacy, September 2018.