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Science and the State Department



State Department officer PAul Simon reports: "We still have environment, science and technology (EST)officers in a some embassies, but not too many. For instance, there is no science officer in London, if you can believe it! There are only science officers in 2 or 3 Latin American capitals. When there is no specific EST officer art a post, an economic officer carries the environment, science and technology portfolio at that embassy or consulate.

The State Department no longer has a professional specialization for science officers; that disappeared in the early-mid 90's during budget cuts. Today, any qualified Foreign Service Officer can bid on EST jobs. No technical background required, believe it or not.

There is one quasi-official reason for this: Foreign Service Officers are supposed to be able to be talented generalists, able to do any job with a modicum of training; they aren't installing computers or measuring particulate levels themselves after all. Their mission is presenting the US view on EST issues, interfacing with local officials and experts, and reporting back. We have Foreign Service specialists to run our own technical gear and they are VERY talented.

The whole flawed concept of "EST Officer" might have been another reason. This is just my own supposition but no one person could be an expert on software engineering, astrophysics, epidemiology, global warming, driftnets, nuclear science, etc. The EST officer as a specialty was kind of like being 'The Professor" on Gilligan's Island. You got someone who opined on every technical subject but couldn't fix a hole in a boat...

By the way, in the "I confess" category: I am an engineer and joined State to be a Science Officer but they did away with the specialization just when I was about to move to that level.

My comment: It would seem to me that the science officers are like the cultural affairs: they cannot be experts in everything but they know enough to keep in touch with a wide array of subjects, like an editor of Nature or Science. Paul has a technical background, but that is no requisite for applying for the job. The State Department complains that people do any pay sufficient attention to it, while it does not pay sufficient attention to science.

Ronald Hilton - 1/25/02


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