Science doesn’t often get associated with foreign policy, yet the field is actually all about the world. From climate change to water scarcity, science is an integral part of international relations – and increasingly so. As such, our student fellow Taylor Stevens sat down with Dr. Katherine Himes to learn more.

Katherine is an AAAS—American Association for the Advancement of Science—Science & Technology Policy Fellow for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). She holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Minnesota and an MBA in entrepreneurship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Lazy, we know…) 

A science diplomat, Katherine has been muddy-boots adventuring through much of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan. During her time as an overseas fellow and science adviser, Katherine worked to facilitate international relationships, advocate for research, and promote scientific and economic development. She co-led the expansion of a USAID program called PEER—Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research, which has provided direct support to more than 190 researchers in over 40 countries, with a total investment of over $45 million.


FPI: How would you explain your job to a third grader? What is science diplomacy?

At its core, science diplomacy is using science as a tool to connect or as an opportunity to connect—not just governments but also people. Science is often viewed as neutral and non-biased. When countries may not agree with leaders’ actions or foreign policy, countries frequently admire each other’s science.

Another way to think about it is that I am a science ambassador. This involves a lot of travel, integrating science into international development programs and diplomatic conversations. I enjoy helping leaders understand why science can be helpful in making these connections.

The more technical, standard definition of science diplomacy explores this nexus from three angles: One part is science in diplomacy, another part is diplomacy for science, and the third part is science for diplomacy. Science in diplomacy informs or supports foreign policy objectives. Diplomacy for science uses diplomacy to facilitate international research collaborations. Science for diplomacy utilizes scientific cooperation to improve international relations.

It’s important to understand that these collaborations often are focused on basic science—studying a specific research question. That’s really important, but there’s another aspect of science diplomacy and international development, and that’s getting the scientists and engineers to take their work to the next level through technology commercialization and research application.

One example that illustrates these concepts is the work I did with the Pakistan-U.S. Science & Technology Cooperation Program. I was helping Pakistani scientists and engineers understand basic concepts around entrepreneurship. In the U.S., we take for granted that oh, sure, after you do research, a product could be created. A researcher might think about applying for a patent, and ultimately generating economic growth. But the process still is new to scientists and engineers in other countries, where they may know some entrepreneurship concepts but need a few tools to achieve desired results.

One of the goals of international development is to write ourselves out of a job. We want these countries to have all the skills to help themselves. It’s great to establish international research partnerships and collaborations, but it’s also so important to help scientists and engineers obtain the skills they need to spark additional economic growth beyond basic research.


FPI: In what ways can science advance diplomacy and international development?

I’ll give you a few historical examples. After World War II, U.S.-Japan relations were strained, and in the early 1960s, President Kennedy wanted to use science and technology as a way to improve those relations. So a science and technology agreement between the U.S. and Japan was initiated at that time, which was the conduit for better diplomatic relations between the countries.

Another example would be engaging with researchers from the former Soviet Union. Around the time the Soviet Union was dissolving, cooperation among scientists and engineers helped pave the way for better government relations.

In addition to these brief historical examples, current practice is for the U.S Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development to use science advisers to the agency heads. The Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State and the Science and Technology Adviser at USAID both are non-political appointments. The positions are held by senior scientists—science scholars—who act in that advisory capacity. They directly engage and connect science and engineering in the U.S. with governments and people around the world.

Science diplomacy is not just about just connecting scientists and engineers, but also considering the later aspects of these collaborations. Ultimately, economic growth can be sparked once countries establish basic research programs, and then start to apply this research to create new products. Science, engineering, and education are tremendous tools for economic growth.


FPI: What do you see as the most pressing scientific/environmental issues facing Central Asia?

Some of the most pressing issues that face Central Asia in terms of science and environmental challenges stem from water shortages and climate change. Food security also ranks highly— the changing climate is the driver in terms of which crops can be grown, whether traditional crops tolerate the change, and how crops can be irrigated more effectively to conserve water. Protecting biodiversity in the face of population growth and creating reserves for rare species also is a challenge. I would add air pollution in the large cities of Central Asia to the list.

A major health concern in Central Asia is multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB). This is one region of the world where tuberculosis is still quite prevalent, with aggressive strains that are resistant to numerous drug treatments. The great news is that an early diagnostic technology now is available in Central Asia as part of a USAID program. Its use is lessening the severity of MDR-TB.

As in many parts of the world, the U.S. included, funding for science and engineering is a challenge—for science, the environment, and educating the next generation. It is essential to excited young people to lead these activities in the future, in order to address these scientific and environmental issues effectively. It also is critical to have adequate media coverage of these topics and subsequent breakthroughs.


FPI: What do you wish more people knew about science in Central and Southeastern Asia, where most of your work over the past few years has taken place?

Some countries in Southeastern Asia are very fast-moving. Take Indonesia. The Government of Indonesia really wanted to advance their science capacity. They have asked the U.S. for help in starting a national science foundation and becoming a research and engineering powerhouse. Many experts from various government agencies, including the U.S. National Science Foundation, are working directly with Indonesia to help it grow that capacity to understand the grant system, to understand publication, and to really think about educating that next generation of leaders. So in a very short time—in less than 10 years—Indonesia is moving leaps and bounds with its science capacity, and its researchers are very much on the international stage. That would be a great example of a country channeling its financial resources and making big differences.

In Central Asia, under the Soviet system, significant resources were dedicated to science and engineering. This was through support to national academies of science and engineering and universities, as well as through well-paying research and teaching positions. The challenge facing these countries today is limited available funding for science and engineering, and many people educated in “the Soviet System” are near the end of their career. They have amazing technical skills, great command of the literature, excellent prowess in their field of study, and tremendous international connections. However, younger people are leaving the country to pursue research opportunities and sometimes return with the education they received abroad. But there is a definite decrease in terms of young people pursuing science and engineering. The region definitely is at risk of a brain drain in technical areas.


FPI: So you see history playing out every day in science in those countries?



FPI: What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your job?

The most challenging is having patience. Science often moves slowly – it takes a while to obtain results and publish findings in international journals. The world of government work also moves slowly—not just in the U.S. – it happens worldwide. Documents must be approved by different parties, and sometimes Congressional funding requests can take several years to actually reach a federal agency. Having patience can be very challenging at times, because I want to have this immediate result and a great product.

The most rewarding aspect for me is seeing new programs launch. When I was in D.C. interviewing with the Office of Science & Technology at USAID (my “home” for two years), one of the interviewers said to me, “We’re trying to launch this program. We want to be able to connect U.S. researchers who have grants from our federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Geological Survey with researchers in developing countries. USAID would give money to those researchers and it would be this competitive process. These partnerships would happen not just at the level of senior researchers but at the level of graduate students and undergraduate students.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s an amazing program.” Everybody in the office was so excited about this idea.

That was back in early 2011, and it took a little while for this idea to actually happen, but now we’ve created almost 200 collaborations as a result of this program. We’ve leveraged $300 million that the U.S. already has invested in federal science agencies, and USAID has contributed close to $50 million to support these multi-year grants to researchers in developing countries.

The highlight of my four years as an AAAS Fellow was launching a special section of this program for Central and South-Central Asian water researchers. I said to my colleagues, ‘I think we should have a special focus area, because water is a huge issue for Central Asian countries, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.’ I wanted to connect those researchers with U.S. partners, and I had to sell this idea to the highest levels of leadership — to the mission directors at USAID, and also to my peers. I was able to get a very sizable amount of money for these specific research collaborations to take place.


FPI: What are you working on next?

Right now I’m communicating the work I’ve done. I think it’s so important to do the work, but it’s essential to communicate. International development and diplomacy work requires communications, such as reporting outcomes to Congress, reporting to agency leadership, and so forth, but I think it is critical for the public to understand why we do international development and the impact of science diplomacy.

I’m working on a variety of pieces right now—print and speaking engagements. I also am working directly with young people at a college in Washington State. Sparking interest, fostering understanding, and facilitating that understanding is so important.

I’m also working on a book (maybe two) to share stories and insights from muddy-boots science adventuring. Diplomacy and development do not happen in a vacuum. It’s not sufficient to go to a country, and stay in the confines of the embassy or the office. It’s so important to go out into the community and the field, to learn the language and interact with people in as many ways as possible. Once you see that, know that, and feel that, you can do your work much more effectively. Any time I went overseas—whether it was for three weeks in Nepal or those two years in Central Asia and Afghanistan—I would go out into the community as much as I could. A lot of these stories focus on my work and  experiences while running, rock climbing, bicycling, exploring the market… I include conversations with people and these insights into their culture.


FPI: Why is it important to get more women excited, interested, and involved in the worlds of science and foreign policy?

It’s so important to have all possible actors solving problems—all minds at the table. The more educated people engaged in the topic, the better the solution. And education often does not translate into university training. In the water sector, I worked on trans-boundary water management. I would attend meetings at the local level, with local councils. No women were present. While one or two women were on the council, because of childcare obligations, they often couldn’t attend the meetings. Women use water differently than the way men use water; older people use it differently than young people. It’s really important to have the best and broadest representation possible.

We’ve come a long way in terms of women in science and engineering. In the U.S., the percentage of females compared to males studying these topics is close to 50 percent. In some fields, more females than males pursue these areas at the undergraduate level—even at the graduate level. But when you examine senior positions, the women aren’t staying, the men aren’t staying, and the young people aren’t staying. This is termed “the pipeline.” Today, many more females enter the pipeline than in the past, but at some point they’re still leaving the pipeline. This is known as the leaky pipeline phenomenon. We still have a long way to go in terms of females comprising a significant portion of senior leadership, not just in policies that retain talent, but in terms of attracting talent into that pipeline. We’re doing well in a lot of fields for women. We’re doing well in many fields for some minorities. But many minorities still aren’t able to enter the pipeline, let alone be represented in fields at the junior professor level or CEO level. There’s definitely a long way to go.


FPI: What advice would you give to future and fellow interrupters?

Follow your passion. There is no set path. All the decisions I’ve made in terms of studying science, pursuing business, returning to science, moving into university administration, and then transitioning to foreign policy look a zigzag path. But the skills I’ve assembled along the way are really unique, and shape my perspectives that make me an effective leader. You should be bold and create your own pathway, because many things will fall into place that way. Timing has a lot to do with it, so keep working on your best ideas. The timing might not be right right now, but there will be something amazing that happens in the future.