Photo caption: The cohort of scientists and policymakers at the biological materials-of-concern write-shop in Manila, the Philippines in August
As a Health Security Policy Fellow, I recently had the opportunity to be on the frontlines of science diplomacy. The goal? To make the world a safer place; specifically, by collaborating with scientists and policymakers in the Philippines to draft their Biological Materials of Concern (BMC) list. Drafting the list is the first step to meeting national and international biosecurity obligations, stemming originally from the Biological Weapons Convention. In fact, the finalized list will fit nicely into future legislation as well as drafted policies for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear issues. The idea came out of a previous meeting on strengthening lab networks and the output will be a launching pad to raise capacity as well as awareness of biosafety and biosecurity in the Philippines. This was a mission that mobilized leaders in science and security from governments, universities, and NGOs.
Trained as a biochemist, I recognized the biological materials and understood the purpose of a list like the US select agents list. Yet, I was brand new to meetings of this kind and certainly to the type that carry such significance.
As a laboratory scientist from Wisconsin, I was nervous, eager to contribute, and hesitant to make a mistake. So eager, in fact, that I began the first day a whole hour early. I quickly realized, alone at breakfast, that my phone had failed to find the right time zone. In many ways, this experience was a natural progression. I already knew the power of science diplomacy. Informally, I engaged in science diplomacy for years, working with scientists around the world–through study abroad, research collaborations and, most recently, mentoring HSP’s Futures Fellows in Pakistan. I already knew science was a unifying force. I already knew that scientists—who intuitively have a global and long-term perspective that is anchored in fact and reason—have a unique ability to connect. Essentially, I was already a believer. Still, the scales of science diplomacy (much like the scales of humidity from Wisconsin to Manila) were distinct. “Formal” science diplomacy seemed a different beast, and I was curious.
Traveling to Manila, I was unsure what to expect. First, the audience was different. This was not a meeting with students or early-career scientists. This was a group of leaders, a meeting of well-established and highly respected individuals who had already made great contributions to their agencies and countries.
These were leading professors from high caliber Philippine research universities and dedicated scientists and clinicians from professional societies. They were representatives of the national scientific agencies–from the Bureau of Animal Industry and the Department of Health to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine and the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences. The security sector also had a strong showing, with leaders from the Philippine National Police, the Office of the National Security Advisor and the Departments of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. Outside of the Philippine attendees, experts in select agent regulation from Malaysian, American and Australian and world-wide organizations, like the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, all contributed. This group was distinct from the young, energetic and optimistic crowd with whom I usually worked. Given the contrast in informal and formal science diplomacy and between budding and established professionals, I was hesitant.
I could not have been more wrong. The optimism was obvious. Everyone was motivated. Even better, because of the high caliber of these individuals, they had the experience, expertise, and effectiveness to get the job done. A feeling of collaboration and collective momentum was palpable throughout the event as everyone put their minds together to draft the Biological Materials of Concern list.
I was struck by the similarities between this meeting and those in my scientific life. I saw the same excitement that follows excellent scientific discussions and research discoveries. That feeling of satisfaction after a productive committee meeting coupled with the energizing excitement to do an experiment after a collaborator shared a great idea.
Of course, these constructive collaborations are not typically a product of chance—in science or anywhere else. The trust and genuine relationships of a collaboration cannot be forced; they start by having the right people in the same room. Similarly, the best ideas often come from practiced deep thinking and planned exchanges. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that I saw the same elements at play in this collaboration that I know to be key for scientific collaboration.
First, the right people can make all the difference. In science, this means an interdisciplinary team of technical experts and visionaries. This coming together of disciplines and of minds is a common idea: termed synergy in the business world, convergence in science, and multi-sectoral approach in government. In science, I have witnessed computational scientists and biologists combine forces for discovery. They exchange and explain information, working hard to understand each other’s perspectives.
In Manila, the same collaboration between experts abounded. Not only were the leaders of human and animal health agencies in attendance, but leaders from the education, judicial, and security sectors all joined forces to complete the task. When a group of highly dedicated and smart people are all in one room, focused on accomplishing one goal, it’s a powerful thing. Moreover, this conversation did not end with the two-day event. New friendships–between individuals, agencies and nations–developed amid longstanding ones. It simultaneously felt like a family reunion and a first date.
Second, careful preparation and organization is key. The analogies to a scientific project are clear: background work to identify the most pressing problem, methodology research to find the best way to resolve it, and an organized plan to pursue the answer. The talented organizers and facilitators for the BMC Write-shop applied this same method to designing the event. Specifically, they had a clear definition of the goals and a well-thought out plan for maintaining productivity, which included: event structure, invited experts, and guiding materials. Importantly, they were aware of the overall mood and adapted the plan as needed. At this particular event, this flexibility meant revamping half of the second day to preserve the flow and momentum. Finally, task-setting is an absolute requirement and, luckily, I expect the excitement fostered among contributors to accelerate the adoption of the final National BMC list. Further, the stage is set for future advocacy and communication plans to bring biosecurity to the forefront of policymakers’ minds.
Arguably the most important factor in any collaborative endeavor is strong leadership and motivation. Whether it is a graduate student leading a committee meeting or a principle investigator leading a group discussion, their job is to direct the ship and keep it moving. In Manila, the Philippine leaders did a commendable job motivating and directing such a diverse group of individuals. Specifically, they explained the importance of the task and put the goal into a relevant context, all while letting their passion shine through. Faced with this leadership, even the most cynical will be inspired.
In hindsight, my fear that formal science diplomacy would be a scary beast, unlike anything previously seen, could not have been farther from the truth. The similarities to scientific collaboration left a lasting imprint and I feel privileged to have been included in such an important undertaking. In the future, I hope to see more scientists venturing onto this path—they’ll be surprised at how familiar it is.
About the Author
Danielle Lohman is a graduate student working towards a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. As a Health Security Policy Fellow, she is supporting HSP’s work in Southeast Asia.