A science attaché (also known as a scientific attaché or a technical attaché) is a member of a diplomatic mission, usually an embassy. A science attaché traditionally had three primary functions: advise the ambassador on scientific and technical matters, report scientific and technological events, and represent his or her country in scientific and technical matters to foreign scientific and technical academies, industry, and government bodies. A science attaché also helped forge formal ties between domestic and foreign scientists and researchers and acted as a catalyst for scientific exchange initiatives. The non-advising roles of the science attaché seem somewhat less important in the age of the internet and the truly international scientific community it has helped create.
The role of U.S. science attachés was first outlined in 1950 in a report entitled Science and Foreign Relations, issued by the U.S. State Department. It listed the primary duties of science attachés as:
- Reporting on significant scientific and technological developments.
- Assistance in the exchange of scientific information
- Assistance in the exchange of scientific persons
- Assistance in the procurement of scientific apparatus, chemicals, and biologicals
- Cooperation with all United States groups abroad having programs with scientific and technological aspects
- General representations of United States science
- Scientific and technical advice to the Embassy staff
- Arrangements for collaborative research projects between the United States and foreign scientists
- General promotion of better understanding between the United States and foreign science.
The modern trend seems to be to emphasize the advisory role of the science attaché over the facilitation of scientific and technical exchanges. As recently as 1998, the National Academy of Sciences called for the appointment of more science-savvy diplomats to the State Department to improve the quality of the scientific advice available to foreign policymakers. The panel also emphasized the need to encourage general foreign service staff to acquire scientific skills.
While there has been more emphasis on the advisory role, science attachés could still play a role in facilitating exchanges and collaborations by helping scientists from their home country understand the host nation’s science culture and practices.
Formerly, being appointed science attaché was viewed as the "kiss of death" for advancement within the foreign service. However, with the growing importance of scientific issues such as global warming, global infectious diseases, and bioterrorism to foreign policymaking and diplomacy, this perception may be changing.
- Robert L. Loftness, Why Science Attachés?, 80 The Scientific Monthly 124 (1955).
- Science and Foreign Relations, Dep't of State Pub. 3860, Lloyd V. Berkner, ed. (1950)
- Panel Calls for Science-Savvy Diplomats, 281 Science 1937 (1998).
- Linkov, Igor; Benjamin Trump; Elisa Tatham; Sankar Basu; Mihail C. Roco (2014-03-13). "Diplomacy for Science Two Generations Later". Science & Diplomacy 3 (1).