International Diplomacy Through Scientific Cooperation

By Cherrill Spencer, FIP Chair 2017

A record-breaking crowd greeted Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, Sergey Kislyak, when he was lead-off speaker in the FIP invited session X7 on 31st January 2017 at the so-called APS April meeting in Washington DC. “Physics Improves International Diplomacy” declared the title of this session, organized by Dr. Jerry Peterson, FIP’s chair-elect, and the Ambassador endorsed this point of view. The 150 or so attendees included the 2017 APS President, Professor Laura Greene and the APS CEO Dr. Kate Kirby. Also in attendance were reporters from TASS, the official Russian news agency, Sputnicknews and Spacenews, who all reported on the Ambassador’s remarks (see reference numbers 2, 3 and 4).

Mr. Kislyak was educated at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute and received a degree in Nuclear Physics in 1973. He went into the Foreign Ministry of the USSR soon afterwards and he has held evermore important diplomatic positions culminating in the Ambassadorship of the Russian Federation to the United States of America since 2008.

Group photo with Ambassador Kislyak

The session speakers, APS and FIP leaders gather for a photo before the session, left to right: Vaughn Turekian, Amy Flatten, Laura Greene, Ambassador Kislyak, Cherrill Spencer, Vladimir Shiltsev, Jerry Peterson, John Boright.

Noting that lack of knowledge about another country can lead to much distrust Mr. Kislyak pointed out an experiment that happened at the Fermi National Laboratory (in Illinois) in 1972, E36, with a contingent of 7 Russian physicists working on it and in residence nearby with their families, was the beginning of building under- standing between the USSR and the USA through scientific cooperation (see reference #1 for a link to an article about E36; our past FIP newsletter editor, Ernie Malamud, was a member of the E36 collaboration). In the 45 years since E36 the relationship between our two countries has changed several times and Mr. Kislyak spoke about the unlimited opportunities for scientific cooperation that seemed to exist when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s. Although Russia was trying to integrate into the global economy an had lots of financial problems nevertheless prior to 2014 the USA and Russia had 160 agreements on scientific projects, for example with NOAA in an Arctic research station. Also the development of nuclear non-proliferation policies in the 1990s was a result of much joint work of Russian and U.S. scientists.

Then in 2014 there was a worsening of political relations between Russia and the USA, for example, as Mr. Kislyak put it: the USA interfered with a democratically elected President (Victor Yanukovich) in the Ukraine, who was overthrown by protesting Ukrainians and this led to Russia annexing the Crimea in 2014 and so the USA imposed economic sanctions on Russia. All these events, including Edward Snowden being an unwelcome “guest” in Russia and a recent build-up of NATO troops along their border with Poland has led to a large decrease in scientific cooperation and the 160 agreements have reduced to two. The U.S. Department of Energy has stopped all the joint projects since 2014. In answer to an audience member question about future cooperation with the DOE Mr. Kislyak replied he hoped it would improve; it was just 11 days since the new USA President had been inaugurated and he had not heard anything about scientific cooperation yet from the new administration. Mr. Kislyak spoke several times about Russia’s ongoing cooperation with NASA; that Russian and USA scientists and astronauts living in the International Space Station (ISS) were risking their lives together and the ISS is a good model of scientific cooperation that he hoped would continue.

With regard to the economic sanctions imposed by President Obama’s administration in response to the Crimea annexation (and increased by the charges of Russian hacking of U.S. web servers during our Presidential election, which he did not mention) Mr. Kislyak said they were not being hurt by these sanctions, “we can live with them”, because the USA had not been their most important economic partner. It was the drop in oil and gas prices that was hurting them and they need to diversify their economy and rely less on oil and gas for revenues.

Looking to the future Mr. Kislyak praised the Russian education system which has produced a huge pool of scientists, including many physicists and mathematicians, and they wish to integrate these scientists into the global science scene. There were several Russian physicists, now working in the USA, in the audience, invited by Dr. Vladimir Shiltsev, a member-at-large of the FIP executive committee and the Past-President of the Russian-American Science Association (see more about RASA here: During the period 2000 to 2015 the Russian Ministry of Science and Technology increased its funding of science by 25 times. Now it is offering “megagrants” of $500,000 to $1million to foreign scientists to go to Russia and set up joint research labs, Mr. Kislyak encouraged the audience to find out about these grants.

Replying to a question about the possibility of cooperation between the two countries in the field of cybersecurity, he said: “I believe that cyberspace can be an area of interaction, rather than confrontation.” The Ambassador recalled that Moscow had already offered Washington dialogue on this topic some years ago. Another challenge both countries face is terrorism and it is better that we work on these challenges together Mr. Kislyak said.

The Ambassador brought his talk to a close by re-iterating that cooperation in science and technology projects is the best vehicle to build trust between countries.

Cherrill Spencer started her 45 years physics career as an experimental particle physicist, followed by a spell in industry where she learned to design magnets for a start-up MRI machine company, she returned to academia in 1988 as the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory’s only Magnet Engineer. She retired from SLAC in 2014 and is enjoying a busy retirement consulting and volunteering for FIP and other non-profit organizations.



2. (This TASS report is in Russian but an online translation program will translate it for you)



Kate Kirby with Ambassador Kislyak

The Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, meets Dr Kate Kirby, CEO of the APS, before speaking at session X7.