1. How to Get Started?
2. What Is Science Diplomacy?
3. Who Are the Science Diplomacy Stakeholders?
4. How Does the EU Practice Science Diplomacy?
5. What Are the National, Regional and Thematic Approaches of Science Diplomacy?
6. What Set of Skills Do I Need to Be a Good Science Diplomat?
7. Hands On! Case Studies
8. How Can You Dive Deeper into Science Diplomacy?
Satisfaction Survey

2.4.3 Science Counsellors, Attachés, Advisers, and Envoys in Embassies

Scientists working in embassies

Scientists may be deployed from their home institutions (ministries, research centres, universities…) to embassies, or be locally hired in embassies. These professionals have responsibility to liaise on science, research, technology, and innovation issues. Their job titles greatly vary, such as: science counsellors (France), science attachés (US), science advisers or coordinators (Spain), science envoys (also the US), or science wings (India) (Melchor 2020).

The literature on the history and profile of science attachés goes back to the 1950s (Loftness 1955; Forbes 1957). The first US science attaché in Sweden was Robert L. Loftness, who described the role of science attachés in a list of different functions, including building up scientific international collaborations between research teams in both countries (Loftness 1955). William H. Forbes also pointed out science attachés could help the US to ensure its world leadership but, above all, to improve the US moral and ideological image before other countries (Forbes 1957).

Science counsellors or attachés should have scientific legitimacy to better engage with the scientific community, but these roles are sometimes filled by diplomats who require specific scientific training (see 2.4.1. Diplomats). In fact, the US switched to a science attaché model where the diplomat is the one delivering this task. On the other hand, France is the paramount example in appointing active scientists as science counsellors abroad in their Offices of Science and Technology where they also receive science attachés sent from French research institutions and locally-hired expert staff, who are all under the supervision and management of the science counsellor.

However, few renowned scientists can and want to serve full-time as science counsellors/attachés, especially if this implies working with the intelligence community or if it requires foreign language skills. This is why additional professional figures are engaged. Some countries use:

  • Locally-hired experts with a scientific background who would like to specialize in policy-management, such as the UK-SIN model or France that hires local professionals with scientific background to staff their Science and Technology Offices abroad.
  • Appointment of science envoys who would spare just a few days a year to engage internationally. For example, the case of President Obama appointing three science envoys to Muslim-majority countries to improve the US image in these countries by fostering international scientific cooperation: Bruce Alberts, former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Laureate and professor at the California Institute of Technology; and Elias Zerhouni, former director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (El-Baz 2010)
  • Lastly, besides scientists or diplomats being appointed to these science delegate roles in embassies, governments may also send civil servants from their governmental departments who may not necessarily have a scientific background

Functions of science counsellors/attachés

At embassies, these different scientific profiles have the following missions (Ruffini 2017; Melchor 2020):

  1. Collecting and analysing information. The identification and analysis of scientific advances, and the research, development and innovation strategies of all stakeholders in the country of residence are both fundamental in the science counsellor’s portfolio. This information will need careful reporting to their ministries, research centres, innovation structures and enterprises in his country of origin.
  2. Facilitating contacts between scientific communities of both countries. The science counsellor promotes scientific mobility of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as the establishment of close scientific collaborations and partnerships between scientists of both countries. Sometimes, their efforts may be focused on specific scientific areas of interest according to national plans of research and development or the pre-existence of bilateral networks.
  3. Promoting intellectual productions originating from their country and enhancing its scientific and technological image. Through the organisation of events, seminars and conferences, the science counsellor would invite leading researchers and institutions of her home country to showcase their research activities abroad.
  4. Organising the reception of official delegations. The science counsellor prepares and supports visits of ministries, government officials and executives of research institutes to the other country. They also facilitate communication between the government authorities in charge of research and innovation in both countries.
  5. Delivering a scientific advisory role. A growing trend is to enhance the role of the science counsellor/attaché in both providing science advice to all Foreign Service staff deployed in the embassy and encouraging scientific and technical exchanges in different departments. With the growing importance of scientific issues such as global warming, cybersecurity, bioterrorism, global infectious diseases, their role in foreign policymaking and diplomacy is becoming more important.

What the experts think

Below is the testimony of a number of science diplomacy professionals. First, a scientist who moved to international affairs appointed by her government to the French Embassy in Washington DC. After this interview, two advisers working at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs or at an embassy will give you a glimpse into the varied role of the science adviser. In the last interview, our expert explains the role of an Italian science attaché in South Africa. There are other science attachés who will give you more information about their role in 3.2.1. Types of science diplomacy stakeholders: Governmental stakeholders and 3.3.2. Types of science diplomacy networks: National networks.

Minh-Hà Pham

Vice-President for International Relations, Université Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL (PSL) and former Science Counsellor in the Embassy of France in Washington DC

What is your background?


Niccolo Iorno

Niccolo Iorno

Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA)

Can you tell us briefly about your background and your main milestones in your career?


Lorenzo Melchor

Lorenzo Melchor

EU Science advice and diplomacy officer, Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology FECYT). Former science adviser in the Spanish embassy in London

What was your role at the Embassy of Spain in London?


Peter McGrath

Peter McGrath

Coordinator of the Science Diplomacy Programme in The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS)

Can you give us a few examples of jobs a science diplomat may have?


Read more!
Part of the information contained in this topic has been extracted from the following documents:

–      Degelsegger-Márquez, Alexander, Tim Flink,  and Charlotte Rungius (2018): What it takes to do science diplomacy. Practices, identities, needs and challenges of science diplomacy practitioners. Baseline analysis and needs assessment, Deliverable 2.3, Vienna: S4D4C (Link)
–      El-Baz, Farouk (2010): “Science Attachés in Embassies.” Science Vol. 329, Issue 5987, pp. 13. DOI: 10.1126/science.1189621 (Link)
–      Flink, Tim, and Ulrich Schreiterer (2010): “Science diplomacy at the intersection of S&T policies and foreign affairs: toward a typology of national approaches.” Science and Public Policy, 37(9), November 2010, pages 665–677. DOI: 10.3152/030234210X12778118264530 (Link)
–      Forbes, William H. (1957):” The Role of Science Attachés.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 13(8), 274-276.
–      Loftness, Robert L (1995): “Why Science Attachés?” The Scientific Monthly Vol. 80, No. 2 (Feb., 1955), pp. 124-127 (Link)
–      Melchor, Lorenzo (2020): “What Is a Science Diplomat?” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 15 (3):409-423 (Link)
–      Ruffini, Pierre-Bruno (2017): Science and Diplomacy. A New Dimension of International Relations. Science, Technology and Innovation Studies. Cham: Springer International Publishing (Link)

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