State department to hire science adviser

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Kimble: budget cuts caused problems for the state department's handling of science issues. Credit: AP/KATSUMI KASAHARA

The US Department of State is to appoint a science adviser in response to widespread criticism that it has been neglecting science and technology. Officials at the department, which is responsible for US foreign affairs, say the individual appointed will be a “distinguished person” from the science community.

Melinda Kimble, assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science, told a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington last week that the adviser would work directly with senior officials at the department, including herself and Stuart Eisenstadt, the under-secretary for global affairs, to “work with scientific issues at the state department and to develop a science policy” for it.

Kimble said after the meeting that the recruitment of the adviser was at a preliminary stage, but that she hoped to select someone this summer.

The meeting was held to introduce a new science and technology agreement between the United States and the European Union (see Nature 390, 543; 1997). Kimble told the meeting that problems with the department's handling of science issues had arisen because of overall cuts in its budget.

She claimed that the budget had fallen by $5 billion since 1985, “when science and technology seemingly were a higher priority on our national agenda”. (According to the 1999 budget book, the department's budget in fact expanded from $3 billion in 1985 to $5 billion last year, approximately in line with inflation.)

Kimble said there were “certainly some grounds” for recently expressed concerns and criticism “due to the perception that we are de-emphasizing science”. She added that the department had responded to pressure on its resources by concentrating on “urgent” missions, but that it was now trying harder to balance these against longer-term concerns, such as science and technology.

The department has already asked the national academy for advice on how it can better integrate science and technology into its sprawling operations (see Nature 392, 427; 1998). Glenn Schweitzer of the academy's international office says that, although a committee is yet to be appointed, its study will produce a short report by September to feed into next year's budget process. Its main report will follow in 1999.

Schweitzer told a meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) last week that, after 15 meetings with state department officials, he believed that there was “genuine interest at the political level and some interest among the career staff” in the outcome of the study.

Wendy Sherman, a counsellor in the office of Madeline Albright, the secretary of state, was unenthusiastic about the suggestion from one PCAST member that the state department could learn something from its counterparts abroad.

“Other countries aren't expected to carry the same range of responsibilities,” she said. “It is probably easier for some of them to put more effort into science and technology because they don't have to cover the entire waterfront.”

At a congressional hearing in March, it was suggested that the state department should take a leaf out of other nations' books by hiring science attachés on secondment from science agencies, rather than relying on career diplomats.

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Macilwain, C. State department to hire science adviser. Nature 393, 612 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31302

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