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For Science Attaches, It's Pinstripes, Not Lab Coats

OTTAWA—In 1898 the U.S. Department of State sent zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles to its embassy in Berlin to overturn protectionist measures the local government had taken against the import of American pork. Stiles won the commendation of the U.S. ambassador in that city for his successful advocacy of free trade. His larger place in history, however, is as the first person to hold the title "science attaché." Nearly 90 years later, science attachés are an increasingly visible p

By | June 1, 1987

OTTAWA—In 1898 the U.S. Department of State sent zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles to its embassy in Berlin to overturn protectionist measures the local government had taken against the import of American pork. Stiles won the commendation of the U.S. ambassador in that city for his successful advocacy of free trade.

His larger place in history, however, is as the first person to hold the title "science attaché."

Nearly 90 years later, science attachés are an increasingly visible presence in the world of diplomacy, reflecting the growing importance of science in global affairs. An informal survey shows that France leads the way, with scientific diplomats in 35 capitals and six consulates. It is followed by the Soviet Union, with counselors in 27 capitals, and the United States, with 24. Some embassies are staffed with more than one science attaché.

The background and training of a science attaché varies widely from country to country, and even within a single nation's diplomatic corps. The Federal Republic of Germany, for example, posts four science counselors to Washington. One is an engineer, one a scientist, and two are diplomats who specialize in the scientific side of foreign policy. France, Canada and Italy generally rely on scientists, engineers, university professors or persons from the private sector. Japan and the Soviet Union rely mostly on career diplomats who have some science expertise.

The United States uses scientists and engineers from other government agencies, universities or companies to fill specific needs. Career science officers, by contrast, are most often diplomats with little formal science training, although that situation may be changing.

Suited to the Country

The responsibilities of scientific diplomats vary widely, depending in large part on the relative positions of the two nations and their level of scientific interchange. An American science officer in Paris, for example, typically spends much time dealing with cooperative space programs and other bilateral agreements. In a country such as Egypt, a science attaché from a Western embassy would be likely to monitor development aid projects. In countries such as India, a science officer would divide time between the monitoring of bilateral agreements and the more basic problems of health and well-being.

Some responsibilities, however, are common to many attaches. Science officers advise ambassadors and embassy staff on scientific and technological matters and report on developments in their host country. They also work on developing scientific and technological exchanges between the two nations through bilateral programs, visiting scientists and participation in scientific meetings.

Some science attaches also keep track of military technology through journals and other public-record materials. Nevertheless, some host governments may mistake this monitoring for espionage.

No Cloak and Dagger

"This is not the case in Western countries, if only because people there recognize that we have other and better ways of doing intelligence work," said Pete Martinez, a press officer for the U.S. State Department. In less developed countries, Martinez said, officials unfamiliar with the role of a science attaché may be correspondingly more suspicious.

The sheer number of things to monitor can be overwhelming, especially at a post in a nation that strongly supports science and technology. Successful scientific diplomats must not be afraid to tackle a wide range of subjects, some outside their areas of expertise. U.S. officials point out that scientists, rigorously but narrowly trained, are not necessarily the best candidates for this type of work. "A Ph.D. in the hard sciences, when confronted with an area outside his expertise, maybe too intimidated to do anything," said Barry Kefauver, the State Department official who oversees the new recruiting effort.

The capacity to collect lots of information is a talent well-suited to a scientist. The need to evaluate it accurately and quickly is a skill essential to a diplomat. As one former American attaché observed, "although the professional values of the diplomats, as well as the psychological atmosphere of their working environment, differ fundamentally from those of the scientists, the two professions share the common belief that their own pursuit is the noblest that man has ever created."

Ciferri is a professor of microbiology and genetics at the University of Pavia
currently serving as scientific attaché to the Italian Embassy in Ottawa.

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