The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) concluded on President's Day after five days of scientific discussions around the conference theme, "Building a Global Knowledge Society." The meeting, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, brought together over 5,000 scientists, students, journalists, policy practitioners, and university administrators from more than 50 nations, every state of the United States, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C, and more than 6,000 citizens who participated in "Family Science Days." With the spotlight on innovation and international collaboration, it came as no surprise that there was a palpable buzz at the meeting, one fueled by the many exchanges among scientists taking place during the formal sessions as well as in the coffee shops and corridors throughout the convention hall.
This buzz of excitement reminded me of what one wise mentor and seasoned diplomat told me years ago: "policy is a contact sport." He meant that in order to be effective in the policy arena, one needed to meet people, hear views, exchange ideas. The best policy could not be created from behind a desk. Instead, good policies reflect the realities of those affected. This was very much on my mind during the formal sessions and the many impromptu conversations during the course of the meeting. The sharing of ideas among international scientists contributes not only to good research projects but also to improved understandings of different cultures. These exchanges help frame and inform conversations held within foreign policy circles -- so in this sense science diplomacy was in full swing at the AAAS conference.
More than half of the formal sessions (plenaries and smaller working sessions) were led by international teams of scientists or by scientists hailing from abroad -- Egypt, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Barbados, Canada all spring to mind. And, the induction ceremony for new Fellows in the Association, leaders in their respective scientific fields, showed a strong international contingent originating from ten countries besides the United States, including Mexico, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, and France. But a quick review of the listing of new Fellows suggested that an even greater contingent of new Fellows were born outside of the United States and opted to spend their careers in U.S. institutions. The international character of this American-based science organization was fully evident.
The informal conversations which crop up naturally at science conferences also demonstrate how science and diplomacy blend on a personal level. My own meetings with neuroscience colleagues (from Canada), new global health connections (from Sweden), and the many exchanges with colleagues worldwide on best practices to advance women and girls in the scientific pipeline, offered new insights and understandings on content issues and at the same time on current conditions and challenges in conducting science abroad. As scientists working across borders get together to share ideas on experiments and research studies, or advice on how to locate reagents or equipment, or to swap personal stories, bonds are forged. These conversations are critical elements of science diplomacy. This informal brand of science diplomacy, the contact sport variety, is as important to building ties and relationships worldwide as the more traditional government-to-government meetings.
As we work to use science as a bridge between nations and peoples, all forms of science diplomacy -- from high-level government-to government meetings to informal scientist-to-scientists exchanges -- have value. Scientific conferences will continue to be an important backdrop for science diplomacy in action.