Eugene Skolnikoff: the Pioneer of Science Diplomacy

bridges vol. 20, December 2008 / People in the Spotlight

By Philipp Marxgut

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Renewing American diplomacy and restoring the image of the United States abroad will be a central objective of the new US administration. Science and technology, in which the US is still a leader, could play an important role in achieving this. Urgent global problems demand global partnerships and cooperation. This could be a new opportunity for science in international affairs.

Prof. Eugene B. Skolnikoff

Eugene B. Skolnikoff is one of the pioneers who recognized the value of S&T in foreign relations. One of the founding fathers of "Science Diplomacy," he has been working on science in foreign policy for almost 50 years. He served on the science advisory staff under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Carter, and has had a distinguished academic career at MIT, where he is now professor emeritus of political science. "I am a political scientist and that's how I approach this. I am very much interested in policy implications and political processes and that's not what political scientists typically get their promotions for. They tend to do esoteric analysis of a narrow subject," says Prof. Skolnikoff, who turned 80 this year but is still extremely active. Working on a variety of different projects, mostly on issues related to global warming, he was also involved in setting up the Center of Science Diplomacy at AAAS in Washington.

He kindly agreed to speak with bridges about his decades-long experience in the field of science and public policy, how the Soviets opened the opportunity for him to join the White House, and why he thinks that global warming is not the most pressing foreign policy issue for science diplomacy.

bridges: Prof. Skolnikoff, you are neither a scientist nor a professional diplomat. But you have been one of the pioneers who recognized the role of S&T in the formulation and execution of foreign policy. How did science diplomacy come to your attention?

Skolnikoff: This happened in a sort of unusual way, which perhaps wouldn't happen today. Well, I was a scientist. I have a master's degree in electrical engineering. And, in fact, I was heading to Oxford to study physics for a doctorate. But I changed my mind. And I started over again and got a bachelor's degree in politics and economics.

After getting the Oxford degrees, I came to MIT to work for a couple of years until I was drafted into the army. During that time I had worked for several of the faculty and also for the President of MIT, James R. Killian. Then came the Soviet Sputnik launch and President Eisenhower named Killian as his first science advisor. Killian asked me to join his staff to work on foreign policy issues. I didn't even have a doctorate at that time. So I learned on the job, worked a lot with the State Department, and got very interested in the subject. And then I realized that this was really what I wanted to do.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} bridges: In your experience, what role has science played in the formulation of US foreign policy?

Skolnikoff: Well, it varies. In the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, it played a large role. The science office at the White House was intimately involved with national security matters, and almost any foreign policy issue did involve security. The science advisor was part of the National Security Council (NSC).

At that time both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had a strong realization that the issues they were facing, particularly the security issues, were all related to S&T. They could not necessarily trust the departments and agencies of government to give them good advice or recommendations. The science office was crucial to give them real choices and make the implications of those choices clear. So there was a very important role at that time.

After the Kennedy assassination, the subsequent presidents didn't have the same interest. Johnson and Nixon even distrusted scientists. Nixon eventually abolished the science office, but it was recreated by legislation under President Ford in 1976 as the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). That's the office that exists today, but it has been downgraded compared to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Reagan had a science advisor but basically wasn't interested but he had enthusiasm and confidence in technology. He consulted the science advisor primarily to tell him what he wanted to hear. In fact, the science advisor opposed the Star Wars program, but he was told by Reagan to write the speech announcing it.

Clinton basically turned science over to Vice President Gore, who was very interested in some issues but didn't have the clout or didn't follow through. Bush is totally uninterested. In fact, this administration did not want to have a source of information in the White House that they would have to contend with. The office was even moved out of the Executive Office Building.

But that doesn't mean that the OSTP isn't useful. In fact it is quite important, e.g., on budgetary questions. Its staff has taken on some very specific jobs like analysis and advice on climate change. But it doesn't have much political influence or policy influence. There is nothing like the kind of intimate relationship that existed under Kennedy and Eisenhower and, in my view, ought to exist today.  A science advisor should have an independent view or else there is no meaning to the position.

bridges: What was your most memorable moment in the White House?

Skolnikoff: That's a little hard to say. Well, some interactions with Kennedy were fascinating. I think he was a person of enormous curiosity. He wanted to know how things worked. You couldn't just tell him that something was a good idea. He would ask why.

And then our office played a large role in the creation of NASA. I was working on many of the foreign policy activities of the space agency and got into substantial disagreements with the NASA administrators. Kennedy wanted to use space to cooperate with the Soviet Union. And they [NASA] thought that was a terrible idea. They wanted the glory and the money. NASA fought us very hard. We won.

bridges: What was your biggest success in establishing science as an important parameter in foreign affairs?

Skolnikoff: I would say the relationship with Japan. Remember this is still after the war and Japan was very much suffering from the effects of the war. The Japanese had some very good scientists who, as a group, tended to lean heavily to the left in their politics and distrust American policies. We took the view that the best thing we could do was to establish working relationships with them by providing some research support. That would welcome them into the scientific community. Kennedy agreed, and so we negotiated a cooperative science agreement with Japan, which grew right out of our pressure and interests. I think it had a very important effect on the attitude of the Japanese scientific community. They saw the West and the US as much more friendly and interested and they had access - they didn't have good access to the Soviet Union. I think that was my biggest triumph.

The biggest achievement, but I was not centrally involved, was perhaps the arms control agreement in 1963 to ban atmospheric and outer space tests with the Soviet Union. We started negotiating with the Russians in 1958. There were a whole series of meetings being run by our office with the Russians, one about the cessation of tests, another on the prevention of surprise attacks because everybody was worried about another Pearl Harbor, another on the banning of weapons in outer space. We almost got a cessation of testing altogether. That failed because of the Americans, not because of the Soviets. The big debate about cessation of nuclear tests was whether five inspections per year would be enough. The people who wanted to test argued for no more than three inspections. It was a stupid argument but they were too powerful and we lost.

bridges: Would Khrushchev have agreed to five?

Skolnikoff: Eventually. This was a period when the closest communications between the US and the Soviet Union were via scientists. And the Soviet scientists were very close to their leadership. In fact, one of them had a red telephone line from his desk to Khrushchev. It was through that channel that Khrushchev indicated he was willing to accept five. Jerome Wiesner, who was then the science advisor to Kennedy, tried to sell that in the United States but couldn't. It was clear that a treaty wouldn't pass the senate. But we did get at least an atmospheric test ban.

bridges: How have S&T advanced US foreign policy interests?

Skolnikoff: That's a different kind of question. And it's an important one. It is rarely considered because the State Department has no role in setting science budgets, which it should have. I think the most direct influence of that kind was the argument by American scientists that the worst thing that could happen was false secrecy about nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Starting under Eisenhower, there were international conferences where a lot of scientific data was declassified to the horror of many. But it was perfectly sensible. And we were able to see and get a better handle on what the Russians were doing.

Out of that grew the whole idea of peaceful nuclear reactors for power purposes, which was a mixed benefit because it spread the knowledge of nuclear science throughout the world. A lot of countries, including India and Pakistan, got nuclear research reactors. They learned a lot from these, which later was important for their nuclear weapons programs.

bridges: Today, the scientific community calls on the new administration to enhance the S&T policy-making capacity of the White House. What should President Obama do to respond to this claim?

Skolnikoff: I think it's quite simple. Everything depends on how he feels about it. It has to be a very close relationship with the president or it doesn't mean very much. The simplest thing to do, and my guess is they will probably do it, is to raise the rank of the OSTP again. The head of this office will then be a special assistant to the president as well as being a director of the office.

I make a distinction between science policy and science advice to the president. These are two quite different functions. They are obviously related: You cannot be science advisor if you don't know what is going on in science policy and vice versa. But what I would like to see is to have somebody who President Obama feels comfortable with, somebody from whom he wants to hear what he or she has to say, who takes part in the meetings, who has access when he needs to see the president. This was the relationship when Wiesner worked with Kennedy. He went to see him any time he wanted.

Today the White House is larger. You may not be able to do it quite so easily. But still, the idea to me is to have somebody who is a part of domestic and international affairs, sitting in on NSC meetings, maybe even a member of the NSC, and is able to present to the president the options and questions he should be asking. The president doesn't have to know the details of many of these issues, but what he does need to have is a clear set of choices and their implications. And he is not likely to get that from interested parties, cabinet departments, or NSC advisors who are not scientists and who have to rely on somebody else.

bridges: What's the mission of a science advisor?

Skolnikoff: The mission is to clarify disagreements and uncertainties about scientific issues, their political implications and likely future developments. That, presenting disagreements as well as recommendations, won't normally come up from the departments because they have their own interests. They want budgets and more money. As you can see in this (Bush) administration, the views of scientists in the agencies count for little. I mean they are swamped or rewritten by minor team members in the White House without their knowledge.

bridges: Regarding the advice on international S&T affairs: How is the coordination between OSTP and the Department of State (DOS) organized?

Skolnikoff: There was - but there is not now - an associate director for national security and international affairs at OSTP. But in the Bush administration they abolished this position. It was a symbolic move. That part of OSTP in particular, but also the director of OSTP, works with the State Department. Certainly when Norman Neureiter came in as a science advisor to the secretary of state, he had a lot of interactions with OSTP. But there is also interaction between the DOS's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) and the science advisor in the DOS, and between OES and the OSTP.

: What role do international S&T agreements have for diplomatic purposes?

Skolnikoff: A whole variety. As in the example with Japan, those agreements can turn out to be absolutely critical. Also cooperative agreements with eastern European countries in the cold war turned out to be very important. Science was a means to establish relationships. Successful science attachés were very helpful. The attaché in Moscow, for example, opened all kinds of doors, which the ambassador and the foreign policy staff couldn't do.

Kissinger used science agreements as a very handy tool to visit a country and have some agreement on science cooperation. Of course they never put any money into it. It was meaningless to him, he didn't care. He just wanted something to get a favorable press. So often S&T agreements tend to be misused but sometimes they are in fact very valuable. It's not a clear picture.

bridges: Due to their scale, science programs like ITER or ISS necessitate international collaboration. What is the role of Congress in the context of science cooperation?

Skolnikoff: There are some congressmen and -women and staff members who are very interested in international science cooperation, who are very much behind it. There are others for whom it is irrelevant. We still have a country in which people look much more, and especially now, to the problems within the nation. Many parts of the country don't understand how much we depend on and interact with the rest of the world. I would say that we are by far the strongest scientific and technological nation. But it's no longer true that we don't need anybody else. The people don't know that. This is reflected often in the Congress.

bridges: In your opinion, what are the most pressing foreign policy issues where international science cooperation can contribute to the solution?

Skolnikoff: The biggest scientific issue right now is about arms control and nuclear weapons. There is a very strong push for new nuclear warheads in the US to replace the warheads that are deteriorating with age so their deterrent value would presumably be lost. My concern is that the proponents have an absolutely impeccable logic: Why don't we have a new warhead that is more modern and less expensive? And it does not have to be tested to replace the ones that are presently on the missiles. The replacements are less dangerous, etc.

It's the same logic that ended up with 60,000 nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union. Every step of the way was logical and justified. I am very concerned about this. I think what the proponents miss is that even talking about nuclear weapons makes the possibility of their use greater because that puts them into discussion once again. If we go for new warheads why shouldn't others go? So it fuels an attitude towards nuclear weapons, about the usability of nuclear weapons, which to me is very dangerous.

That's exactly the kind of issue I would love to see president Obama and the science advisor get involved in - at least to make it clear what the president's choices are, not just propose to him one choice that looks obvious. The same is true for the missile defense system the US wants to put in the Czech Republic and Poland.

I would put the issue of arms control and non-proliferation higher on the agenda than global warming. Global warming is obviously a major and serious issue. It will be very hard for the world to deal with, but we will. And especially if it starts being serious, if we see the damage, it will be easier to deal with.

bridges: Prestige as one of the most important tools in foreign relations. One of the elements of US prestige has always been S&T (e.g., space, atomic energy). Which areas will be at the center of the new administration's attention?

Skolnikoff: That's hard to answer. Space doesn't have the same prestige value that it once did. I think we wasted a lot of money on the planning to go to the moon and Mars that our current president set up for his vision. It's just silly. They are taking money away from some of the scientific projects in NASA, especially the earth resource satellites.

Clearly the United States is spending a large proportion of the science budget on biomedical research. I think we are seen as the world leader in that area by the scientific community. Maintaining that is very important and critical, not just for prestige purposes but for health and economic purposes. The payoff is obviously very valuable. Take Cambridge, Massachusetts: It really is the center of world biotechnology. It's basically centered on one crossroad near MIT. The accumulation of research and industrial labs is incredible. This will only be maintained if we keep funding it adequately. We doubled the NIH budget in less than 10 years. It's wonderful to do that. The trouble is, when you don't continue you've got all these young researchers who need support.

I think the big difference today from the world of 10 years ago is the diffusion of scientific quality and competence around the world. The idea that one country has to stand out is no longer valid. I think the United States has to be the equal of others and, where it makes sense, be in the lead. But it is no longer possible to be the leader in everything. It's another reason why international cooperation and international diplomacy are so important, because we depend on others now.


The author, Philipp Marxgut, has been accredited as Austria's Attaché for Science & Technology to both the USA and Canada since July 2007. He is also the director of the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C.