Building a Better World Through Science Diplomacy

By Laura H. Greene

Note: This article is adapted from an address delivered to the APS Leadership Convocation in February 2018

During 2017 my theme as APS President was “Science Diplomacy”—using the words and actions of science to build a better world beyond the realm of any politics; using scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems and to build constructive international partnerships. To repeat: beyond the realm of any politics.

In January 2017, the President of the United States and I each gave our inauguration speeches during the same week and in the same city. On Friday of that week, the Trump administration’s executive travel ban was announced during the APS “April in January” meeting in Washington, DC, and I realized that my science diplomacy efforts must now be applied within our own borders. We responded in two important ways. First, we quickly issued a statement (a letter from APS Chief Executive Officer Kate Kirby and me) simply re-affirming our values. We quoted a 2003 APS Council Statement to the effect that pushing the frontiers of science requires the free transmission of ideas and people across borders and boundaries.

Laura Greene

Second, I found myself constantly reminding our members, through emails, calls, and face-to-face meetings, that we are staunchly non-political, and I did a pretty good job. We issued several letters and press releases in support of science, including concerns over budget cuts for science. None of this was political—we focused only on the best way to further US science. Our members called on APS in droves to respond and we did so in effective ways. This was only possible because I worked closely with Kate Kirby, James Taylor (APS Deputy Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer ), Amy Flatten (APS Director of International Affairs ), and Francis Slakey (APS Chief Government Affairs Officer).

With our domestic challenges, I had less time for international science diplomacy, but I did help lay foundations and strengthen connections between international societies. Our ties with the Cuban Physical Society (CuPS) began almost three years ago when the US opened up to Cuba, and the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) charged me with reporting on the state of Cuban physics. With help from Myriam Sarachik, a past APS president who lived in Cuba, I had the delightful experience of becoming involved with CuPS and that relationship has grown substantially—Amy, Kate, and I went to their 40th anniversary meeting, which was my third visit.

I have personally worked with many international scientific societies—including those in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Tunisia, and Ghana—and through the years, I have had the honor of many visits to many countries. My focus has been on developing countries, giving a variety of talks and workshops, and expanding our international alliances. The upcoming APS Strategic Plan includes recommendations from our Task Force on International Engagement and I will continue working with them. I have also taken on new leadership roles at the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), including becoming Vice President of their Council, with an aim to stimulate and promote international cooperation in physics.

Why work so hard to make the world smaller? I have two answers: diversity and human rights. Let’s start with diversity.

I don’t bring that up only because I’m a woman physicist with a long and interesting background; I just fundamentally believe that is the right way to go, and I do my best to champion diversity in any way I can. Look at how impressive our APS programs are—from the Bridge Program for underrepresented minorities, to working with LGBT physicists, to what the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics has accomplished. I hope to attend the APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics every year—they are not to be missed!

But if we ignore scientists in developing countries or the ones who just do not look like us, we are missing out on vast undiscovered talent. And, to attack the problems of the 21st century, we must have diversity of thought and approach. One of my favorite examples is when physicists from the US and the Soviet Union began working together in the 1950s. In my field of quantum matter and superconductivity, we witnessed a complete about-face in theoretical physics: Collaborations led to solving the electron-phonon BCS theory of superconductivity (one of two solved quantum materials problems out of dozens that still exist)—and that was just a group of white guys coming from different countries! In my own research I love to see how students and collaborators from different backgrounds go after problems in diverse ways—it is always enlightening and exciting. And I want to further stress that diversity is more than the way we look, our perspectives, where we are from, or personal challenges, but also our fields of endeavor. To deal with what our planet will be facing in public health, climate change, and global security will require basic science, engineering, humanities, and fine arts.

Most of my work on international science diplomacy has gone smoothly, but we did run into a roadblock. Seven US scientists, including myself, were invited to attend a 2017 international conference on quantum materials that has occurred biannually since 1999, and it was to take place this time in Iran. Only a few days before the conference, we were all denied attending by the US Treasury Department, which claimed we were in violation of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations although we were not (see APS News, March 2018). Although many in our government value science diplomacy, we have recently seen increased sanctions that will lead to more roadblocks. I will continue to strive, for the good of the US and science to get us back on track.

Now on to human rights. When I was a graduate student, one of my professors at Cornell, Kurt Gottfried (co-founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and winner of the 2017 AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award) asked me if I would mentor Elena Sevilla, a physics graduate student who had been in prison in Argentina for two years and could only get out under the “Right of Option.” That meant she could only be released if another country accepted her, and the US did so. My response was “hell yes!” We went to the Ithaca airport to pick them up—Elena and her two-year-old son. This case was monitored by APS, the National Academies, and Amnesty International; and that was how I learned how effective Amnesty was at saving lives. That was 41 years ago, this marks my 41st year as a member of Amnesty, and Elena and I are still great friends!

The APS Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) is responsible for monitoring concerns regarding human rights for scientists throughout the world. Over the past few years I have worked with CIFS, AAAS, and the National Academy of Sciences in human rights; and I hope to do more. It is difficult to see your wins and not difficult to see your losses. We think a win was the case of Omid Kokabee, an Iranian graduate student at University of Texas at Austin who, upon returning to his home country to see his family in 2011, was detained because he did not want to do weapons work. Scientific societies monitored this case—and I urge you to see the work CIFS did in this case—(it is posted at

In 2014, Kokabee received prestigious awards from both APS (the Sakharov Prize) and AAAS (Scientific Freedom). The letters to the Iranian Government could then show that over 100,000 scientists were aware of him. Nothing political—just to point out we were very worried about him (he was in very poor health). He was released in 2016. It was years of work, building up the case and getting the word out.

A current case in Iran is Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian medical scientist who was working in Sweden, and was detained upon a visit to Iran. He was charged with being a spy and received a death sentence. Again many societies are monitoring the case and writing letters. In December 2017 the first letter to the Iranian government co-signed by the APS and AAAS presidents was sent. We are monitoring, waiting, and worrying.

Note a theme here—whether science diplomacy or human rights, I only promote them outside of politics. One can be most effective in these areas by being non-partisan. As the 2017 APS President, with my background, I felt I was ready to keep our members, as much as possible, from trying to make APS partisan. It was a challenge!

All of these projects, and more, were only possible because our APS journals are strong and healthy; the revenues from our journals are re-invested back into the Society’s activities. As APS proceeds with strategic planning this year, it will be vital to consider the future of the dissemination of scientific information and what scientific information is going to look like. The face of publishing is changing dramatically and at an accelerating pace, open access being one component. It is clear to me that under the leadership of APS Editor in Chief Michael Thoennessen, APS Publisher Matthew Salter, and our team of editors, we are assuring the strength and quality of APS journals.

I want to now turn to you, our leadership and our members. APS needs your help. Now, not all of our members need to be engaged—I was pretty much a full-time lab-rat until I was 40, and that is fine—we need that diverse segment too! But I urge you to encourage your membership units to at least promote young people and underrepresented minorities. We women and minorities do our best, but we need all of you white males to help—you are the majority in our fields. I want each of you to invite worthy women or underrepresented minorities to give talks and nominate them for APS Fellowship or for an APS prize or award. I asked the APS Council to do this—and I’m asking you. If you just put 20 minutes of thought into identifying worthy recipients, I know you will find many. A lot of it is just who you know or think of—so please give it a go. It is really fun and rewarding.

APS Past President Laura Greene was the Society’s President in 2017. She is Chief Scientist of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and professor of physics at Florida State University. Her research focuses on experimental condensed matter physics and strongly correlated systems in particular.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

October 2018 (Volume 27, Number 9)

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Articles in this Issue
IGEN Takes the APS Bridge Program to the Next Level
Physics at the Shortest and Longest Scales
Parker Probe En Route to Solar Rendezvous
Quantum Information Science in the National Spotlight
Small Box, Big Physics: Putting Together PhysicsQuest
APS Addresses Decline in International Student Applications to U.S. Physics Ph.D. Programs
Out in Physics: Gaining Visibility and Acceptance
Announcing the Millie Dresselhaus Fund for Science and Society
This Month in Physics History
Profiles in Versatility
News from the APS Office of Government Affairs
FYI Science Policy News From AIP
Education and Diversity News
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