Keynote Address: Science and Technology for Diplomacy

Frances Colón is the Acting Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, United States Department of State. In an animated talk spanning science, technology, diplomacy and policy, Frances provided an inside look at the intersection between science and politics. Briefly, her journey started at Brandeis University studying developmental neuroscience. After she was matched via AAAS to the State Department, she became Adviser to the Secretary of State in the Office of Science and Technology.

An introduction to science diplomacy

Science diplomacy sits in between foreign policy and science policy –  not a very common place. The office of the Science and Technology Adviser in essence serves to translate scientific concepts and practices for policy makers. It has three main functions:

  1. Spreading democratic values 
  2. Solving global challenges 
  3. Engaging with non-political tools

In translating emerging technologies and scientific trends, this position influences how we could handle foreign affairs. For instance, the concepts in the field of robotics could impact disaster relief efforts (ie: using robots for risky clean-up duty). As the lines blur between governments or countries for scientists, more and more are collaborating across borders – and the Office of the Secretary of State is also collaborating with scientists and related groups. For example, they’ve partnered with Startup Grind, a global community fostering entrepreneurship through fireside chats. An interesting partner given that the spirit of entrepreneurship is not as common in other countries and communities as it is here. An interesting question to tackle in this context is: How do we help develop innovation ecosystems in other countries (ie: A ‘silicon valley’ in a developing country). 

Science and the State

Recently Colón’s group partnered with Microsoft and Intel to host a science and technology camp for girls in Rwanda. Perhaps the most interesting questions raised by the girls in this camp were not about the actual work but about being female in a STEM field. Since the answers cross cultural norms, they are in fact tricky to answer but still necessary to discuss.

Another interesting point brought up by Colón was in the relationship with Cuban scientists. In fact the WHO recently announced that Cuba is the first country to eliminate the transfer of HIV and Syphilis from mother to child – quite the accomplishment for a country that has lived with an embargo act for so many years. Colón traveled to Havana recnelty and returned with a panel of infectious disease experts to tackle global crises like the Ebola outbreak. While the reopening of the USA embassy in Havana is progressive, the embargo is still in effect, and could still affect businesses.


Speaking at the SENS conference, Colón was asked numerously about how the State plans to deal with issues that are perceived as ‘non-crisis’ issues, such as aging. She stated that 90% of the issues they deal with are crises like infectious outbreaks and simply do not have the bandwidth to tackle these other issues, despite the fact that the older population is growing rapidly across the globe. Her advice was to speak loudly, clearly and frequently (from diverse communities) to US Congressmen and organizations like the NSF. Speaking as a scientist in the aging field, I concur with my collegues here and hope that age-related diseases make it on the to-do list of public policy makers.

An attendee noted that getting a policy initiated with the current Obama administration may be our best best since he has actively gone after a ‘non-crisis’ issue like climate change.

Finally, she encourages scientists to be vocal about their work and passions – so that our collective voice grows louder and can lead to real policy change.