This Saturday, in over 500 cities worldwide, thousands of people will take to the streets for an unprecedented show of support for all things evidence-based. The range of different groups joining the March for Science — from librarians to artists to teachers to oncologists — highlight the truth behind a phrase that is often dismissed as a cliché: Science really is a universal language. And it is that universality that makes science the ideal conduit for diplomacy in this moment in history.
The scientific method is a framework for asking fundamental questions about the world, and the instinct to do that is part of human nature everywhere and at every age. Science provides a process for pursuing answers that can be followed regardless of where you live or what language you speak. It brings people together through a shared desire to solve real-world problems and a common joy in discovery. That’s what makes it an ideal way to bring people together and transcend the kinds of barriers that currently threaten our relationships across the globe.
Certainly there is no shortage of important problems facing our nation and the world: combating emerging diseases and improving treatments against existing ones, feeding a growing global population, sustainably powering our cities and homes, and preserving our air and water. With both science funding and formal diplomacy at the federal level on the precipice, it is time for the rest of us to become a nationwide science diplomatic corps.
This starts at the earliest level, with greater support for programs to connect U.S. schools with sister schools abroad. Conversations between elementary or high school students for pure cultural exchange are great — but why not have them conduct science experiments together, comparing hypotheses and results long-distance?
At the university level, we should expand the portfolio of grant programs that support international teams of academic researchers and push them to think more expansively about where they look for collaborators. Good partners don’t need to be down the hall or across town; technology allows teams operating in multiple countries to be in constant contact while conducting their respective parts of a project.
Let us broaden our geographic scope well beyond the handful of countries we usually look to for exchanges and research programs. Countries that are historically “off the beaten track” of scientific collaborations are home to important research subjects and more importantly, talented, well-trained professionals with a front-line view into fascinating and urgent problems their U.S. counterparts may not have considered. Many of these are also countries where we have a vested interest in strengthening economic and social stability and bolstering the image of Americans.
I have seen this constantly in my own work. Last month, for example, my nonprofit organization hosted an event that brought together over 150 members of the Boston scientific community — individuals from pharmaceutical companies, universities, nonprofits and even governmental agencies — together with scientists from countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia. It was breathtaking to watch as the Tanzanian chemists chatted effortlessly with the Vietnamese environmental biologist, while American professionals of many global backgrounds themselves found common ground with their counterparts from Mexico, Colombia and Kenya.
After Saturday, let’s not squander our nationwide excitement for science. Instead, let us harness it. We can create a distributed network of private-citizen diplomats and use the power of science to strengthen our global relationships. We can educate a new generation of internationally connected scientific investigators. And we can uncover solutions to improve the lives of millions of people — not just at home, but around the world,