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Fanaroff Lecture 2020

Questions & Answers

Postcards were left in the lecture theatre for attendees to ask questions of both Dr Marga Gual Soler and Dr Bernie Fanaroff. We received several interesting questions which have been answered below. 

  • How can representation of scientists be increased across all levels of government?

Dr Gual Soler

The best way is to learn ‘on the job’, through science-policy interface mechanisms such as fellowships, internships and pairing schemes that place scientists in governments (local and federal), embassies and international organisations. In countries like the US and the UK these mechanisms for connecting scientists and policymakers are very well established. For example, doctoral students can spend a few months in a government or parliamentary office. However, in most countries there is a lot of resistance to the idea that a scientist can work in sectors of society other than their laboratory or desk. I’m working with many countries to develop these programs. And we're developing a curriculum for teaching science diplomacy to various audiences - from undergraduate to executive education, in universities, foreign ministries, academies of sciences, multilateral organizations, and others.

Dr Fanaroff

This is a difficult question. It depends very much on the particular institutional arrangements and the situation in each country. The first thing to do is to present scientific work and/or thinking to the public on topics which are relevant to current issues. This can be done through the press, or in presentations to parliamentary committees, or on radio/TV and social media. The objective is to make the public aware of the relevance of science and its rigorous analysis to policy and the execution of policy. Academies of science should then start to talk publicly about the advantages of having scientists (and engineers) in government, both in political posts and as officials, because they bring a particular problem-solving approach and rigour to the work. 


Making policy sounds exciting, but it's often quite dull, so young scientists shouldn't think that it's all glamour. They will usually have to start at the bottom in the civil service or political party and work their way up, not start at the top, unless they are already very prominent both scientifically and politically. Also bear in mind that political and electoral timetables and issues will often mean that good scientific advice is ignored or cherry-picked. So you have to see it as a process, where scientists won't just walk into senior positions, give advice and see it immediately setting the direction for policy. It has to be put in place over time, where scientists gain credibility and public visibility.

  • How did you join the UN after your PhD? What experience and skills did you bring aside from your science background?

Dr Gual Soler

I came to the realization - like many young scientists do today - that my research on a very narrow topic wasn’t making much of a positive contribution to society. So I decided to insert myself in places where scientists traditionally aren’t present, including a fellowship at the United Nations, where I worked on the role of science, technology, and innovation in the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals. After the UN, I moved to Washington, D.C., to join the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. My first project was to implement a historic agreement between AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sciences to advance scientific cooperation between Cuba and the U.S. in environmental and health cross-border issues affecting both countries, such as tropical infectious diseases, cancer, antimicrobial drug resistance, hurricane preparedness, and ocean conservation. My specialized scientific training, followed by international policy exposure, the cross-cultural awareness provided by my international experiences, and my bilingual proficiency in English and Spanish happened to be the right combination for this project. Unknowingly, I had acquired the right set of skills and experiences of a “science diplomat."

You can read more about Marga's career path into science diplomacy in this Slate article 'How I Became a Science Diplomat'. 

  • What activities would you recommend to a young scientist interested in policy and diplomacy? What are the key skills to develop? 

Dr Gual Soler

Young scientists are already leading the way! Students themselves are now leading professional development programs in science policy and diplomacy at universities. They're establishing engagement platforms around the world to open up new career pathways and provide on-the-job skills development for aspiring science diplomats. Good examples of initiatives that I mentor are the National Science Policy Network in the US and the Science Policy Exchange Network in London.


It's important to build interpersonal skills, negotiation, cross-cultural awareness, and most importantly sensitivity and discretion - many of your projects, meetings, and conversations will never see the light of day, and if they do, it will be months or years later. And by the way, this is the reason science diplomacy efforts always look like a success - there are many failures that are not made public, for classified or reputational reasons, and science diplomacy is not immune to political cycles. The program that I led with Cuba during the Obama administration was dismantled after Trump came into power. But it’s not all just about soft skills. If you are a scientist, you should have a good grasp of the basics of public policy, international affairs, international law or geopolitics. Unfortunately, as the term science diplomacy becomes more popular it is also getting distorted, and often confused with international science co-operation.


To be effective, scientists need a strong understanding of how the diplomatic apparatus works and the way that international and multilateral institutions deal with scientific issues. In my case, after my PhD in science and my UN fellowship, I did an executive program at Georgetown (one of the best foreign service universities in the world), and then a Certificate in Diplomatic Theory and Practice. Finally, I will stress that there is a lot more supply than demand, so institutions need to build structures and science-policy interface mechanisms such as the internships and fellowships within government agencies, embassies multilateral organizations, etc that I already mentioned.

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