By Hillary LeBail and Gavin Piercy
Science envoys are preeminent American scientists and engineers who, at the request of the Secretary of State, agree to volunteer their time and utilize their scientific renown to further diplomatic goals on behalf of the American people. Science envoys are selected for this honorary Department of State alliance based on their professional accomplishments and scientific excellence. Given their stature in their fields, these individuals invariably have strong international appeal and can help the U.S. open doors and build relationships with scientific and technical communities in other countries.
Established in 2010, the Science Envoys program receives its origin from an idea of former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. and a bipartisan group of his colleagues. The intent was to send American “science diplomats” to other countries to promote the advancement of science and technology based on issues of common interest and expertise. The program’s initial purpose continues today.
The Office of Science and Technology Cooperation within the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) directs the Science Envoy program and selects each envoy to cover a key scientific field of U.S foreign policy interest. All envoys are world-renowned scientists in their respective fields. Current and former science envoys have included a MacArthur Fellowship—commonly known as the Genius Grant—recipient, a former astronaut and a Nobel laureate. An envoy’s term of service is typically one year, during which the envoy travels on numerous Department-sponsored trips to engage with priority audiences and interlocutors in their respective fields.
To date, 23 science envoys have traveled to more than four dozen countries and engaged with thousands of scientists, officials and members of the public to highlight the accomplishments of American researchers and to encourage progress in areas of U.S. interest. The work of science envoys has significant impact. For example, Science Envoy Dr. Peter Hotez, using his expertise in vaccine development, worked with Saudi Arabia to establish the first-of-its-kind vaccine institute in the Middle East, a partnership which has already led to a new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus vaccine candidate.
Other science envoys have helped to empower and create new opportunities for other scientists. Science Envoy and chemist Geri Richmond has dedicated herself to creating opportunities to promote the advancement of women in the sciences. As a science envoy, she built a network of professional women scientists in Vietnam, the first ever such network in the Asian region. Science Envoy Dr. Tom Lovejoy helped to galvanize a group of Peruvian ministers and vice ministers to inspect the devastation caused by illegal gold mining. This opened the door for new engagement by the U.S. Embassy in Lima, which eventually led Peru’s Ministry of Interior to commit to an increase of law enforcement resources to combat illegal mining in the Peruvian Amazon.
Science envoys are uniquely positioned to advance American perspectives in international science diplomacy. Envoys serve in a personal capacity, not as representatives of the U.S. government; however, they leverage their personal scientific networks, professional expertise in program development and potential access to funding sources. This allows them to build long-lasting, independent, self-sustaining relationships. As the envoys strengthen these scientific relationships, they expose other countries to American scientific ethics and values including transparency, meritocracy and good governance. As a program that forges international networks, addresses real world problems and creates tangible economic benefits and opportunities for the U.S. and its foreign counterparts, the Science Envoy program has become a driver for the advancement of science diplomacy effectively leveraging science and technology engagement to advance American interests abroad. Last year, the Department welcomed its largest cohort of science envoys. Current envoys are focusing on five primary areas chosen to align with OES functional bureau strategy goals and administration priorities: space, innovation, health, security and air quality.
U.S. Marine Corps retired Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden currently serves as the first U.S. science envoy for space. Bolden served as the 12th administrator of NASA and was an astronaut on four space shuttle missions, two of which he served as the commander. As a science envoy, Bolden promotes American leadership in space exploration, emphasizes the importance of commercial opportunities and highlights the importance of STEM, or science, technology engineering and math, education. His recent visits to the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Ethiopia and South Africa created opportunities for engagement with new audiences.
Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota is an international leader in the fields of global pandemic preparedness and antimicrobial resistance. As a science envoy for health security, Osterholm combats biological threats by working with priority countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Ghana. His work improves infectious disease preparedness and reduces antimicrobial resistance.
Dr. James Schauer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the Director of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, the state’s public and environmental health laboratory, which operates as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a science envoy for air quality, Schauer has conducted programs in India that highlight U.S. scientific strategies and technologies for mitigating poor air quality.
Dr. Robert Langer is one of 13 institute professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a position that is considered MIT’s highest honor. Langer is also one of only four living individuals who have received both the United States National Medal of Science and the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation. As a science envoy for innovation, Langer focuses on novel approaches in biomaterials, drug delivery systems, nanotechnology and tissue engineering, and the American approach to research commercialization. In his engagements in Europe and the Middle East, Langer illustrates to foreign counterparts the benefits of partnerships that offer access to American ingenuity in science and technology.
Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a professor of bioengineering at Rice University, specializes in creating new technologies to provide healthcare to vulnerable populations. As a science envoy for health security, Richards-Kortum has focused on expanding access to American engineering research and curriculum to build engineering capacity and opportunities for U.S. science and technology collaboration with African countries. Recently, as a science envoy, she traveled to Malawi and South Africa to discuss health security and health innovation with young girls and government officials. While in Malawi,
Richards-Kortum’s message to students and professionals was “science can change the world…if you love science, it is a great way to make the world a better place.”
Like their 18 predecessors, these distinguished science envoys have engaged internationally at the citizen and government levels to enhance American relationships with other countries, develop partnerships and improve science collaboration. For more information about the U.S. Science Envoy program—including interest in hosting an envoy at post—or to suggest a scientific field of focus, please contact OES.
Follow OES on Twitter @StateDeptOES or use #ScienceAtState.
Hillary LeBail is a public affairs officer in the Office of Policy and Public Outreach in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Gavin Piercy is a Foreign Service officer in the Office of Science and Technology Cooperation in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.