Bill Burns’ Remarks at the Science Diaspora Reception


Thank you for that kind introduction. I bring you greetings from Secretary Clinton, who was delighted to launch the Global Diaspora Forum earlier today and asked me to convey her deepest support for your efforts.

I’m truly honored to be here this evening – nearly a century and a half after a stroke of President Lincoln’s pen first brought to life the National Academy of Sciences, and after nearly a century and a half of remarkable contributions to the advancement of science and technology.

While my own checkered scientific career peaked in high school physics class, for years, my father served on the Academy’s Committee on International Security and Arms Control. So it is also a personal point of pride to be addressing you in this historic building.

Today, we gather to discuss the intersection of two powerful currents in world affairs: first, the unrelenting advance of scientific knowledge and innovation; and second, the ever-thickening web of connections that brings diaspora communities and their homelands ever closer together.

We are here today because we see a synergy. We believe that, by combining our science diplomacy and our outreach to diasporas, we can push the envelope not just on what we know, but on who enjoys the benefits of that knowledge. We can prove through practice that one nation’s benefit need not be another’s loss. And we can help our scientists achieve what nations struggle so mightily to do: come together to solve the challenges we cannot solve on our own.

We start by recognizing the power of science in our diplomacy. During my travels in every region of the world, I find that regardless of their politics, culture, and worldview, people everywhere want to engage with American scientists and engineers. They understand that American science and technology breed innovation and industry, which in turn create jobs, growth and improved quality of life. If you’ll excuse the pun, science diplomacy lends a whole new meaning to Secretary Clinton’s commitment to “smart power.”

That is why State Department flagship partnerships like the Global Innovation through Science and Technology initiative have delivered skills development, networking, and financial advice to more than 400,000 young scientists and technology entrepreneurs and mentored over 500 startups in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. And it is why we are supporting efforts like the Global Partnership Initiative, and the Global Entrepreneurship Program to create environments where science and technology thrive.

Part of harnessing the power of science is working closely with you, the science diaspora networks here in the United States.

Like so much of American life, the story of innovation in this country is a story of immigrants, from Albert Einstein (whose statue is keeping watch outside) to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The great innovation of the twenty-first century, however, is the ability to connect our brightest minds with their counterparts across the world faster than ever before.

In the United States, a quarter of foreign-born workers with college degrees are employed in scientific and engineering professions. Foreign-born entrepreneurs were behind one in four U.S. technology startups from 1995 to 2005. From 1990 to 2004, almost half of the U.S. Nobel laureates in science fields were immigrants. Many are in close touch with their countries of origin, and this is a trend we hope to encourage—for diplomacy, for development and for science.

These ties and the networks they create have great potential to help us advance economic development and international cooperation. It is up to us to ensure that we turn the potential that we all agree is there into kinetic energy that improves lives around the world. We in government cannot match your technical knowledge. But we do hope to be a catalyst, or spark, to lower the barriers to action and create connections that set innovation in motion.

Tonight we are proud to announce a new facet of our global science and technology engagement strategy, the creation of the Networks of Diasporas in Engineering and Science (NODES), a joint effort of the State Department Science and Technology Adviser’s Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Under this new initiative, we will regularly convene science diasporas in partnership with U.S. government technical agencies, academia, and science and technology groups. A yearly gathering at the AAAS annual meeting will serve as a catalyst for mobilizing new constituencies, launching new capacity-building activities, and sharing resources in partnership with the International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA).

As Under Secretary Sonenshine will describe in a moment, we are also working to increase opportunities for U.S. scientists and technology and innovation experts to engage in public diplomacy programs supported by U.S. embassies abroad.

Today, we are seeing a new model emerge for a truly global scientific community, with the longstanding debate about “brain drain” giving way to a new vision of “brain circulation.” Scientists and engineers hold multiple citizenships; some return home to start companies, to initiate research or sabbaticals, or to reconnect with family. All of this is possible while maintaining their social and professional ties to the United States, thanks to the low cost and speed at which information can be exchanged today. This is the new reality of the hyper-connected global economy, and we welcome it.

Today’s scientific diasporas embody the ethos that nations don’t simply compete with each other—they also make things together. Diaspora innovators are bringing together partners from the United States and their home countries to collaborate on research and create new joint ventures in research and business. Nowhere is this trend more important than in meeting the needs of the developing world, where exchanges of knowledge, human capital, and technology are helping nations leapfrog into the digital age.

Consider the story of Patrick Awuah who left Ghana to attend Swarthmore College on a full scholarship, going on to work for Microsoft after graduation. After nine years with the company, the Microsoft millionaire realized his dream of building a high-tech university in Ghana, Ashesi University.

Or consider the success of the U.S.-Africa Materials Institute, a virtual research institute at Princeton University that received funding from NSF and connects scientists from 17 universities in Africa to the United States. Thanks to the work of Winston Soboyejo, of the Nigerian science diaspora, African scientists come to the Institute to conduct cutting-edge nanotechnology research. And a nanotechnology program has recently been created back in Nigeria.

Inspirational examples like these occur every day, and we welcome them. America does not seek a monopoly on scientific knowledge or innovation. Like any nation, we hope that our citizens will lead the way and we seek to remain the most attractive destination for research and innovation. But we also know that breakthroughs are far more likely with many hands and different perspectives at work. And we know that advances elsewhere can benefit Americans. Secretary Clinton has spoken of the long-term goal of building a “global architecture of cooperation” where all nations bring capacity and goodwill to solve our shared challenges. The cross-pollination that diaspora communities can achieve will only bring us closer.

So today we deputize each you as fellow diplomats. Each of you has a unique set of skills to bring to this project. You have disparate mother tongues, from Wolof to Urdu, and yet you speak common languages, from HTML to genomics.

We admire your work. We appreciate your help. And we’re eager to support your efforts to create the tools and spread the knowledge to build a more peaceful and prosperous world. Thank you.


About the Author: Bill Burns holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service, Career Ambassador, and became Deputy Secretary of State in July 2011. Ambassador Burns served from 2008 until 2011 as Under Secretary for Political Affairs. Previously, he served as was Ambassador to Russia, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and Ambassador to Jordan. Before entering the Foreign Service in 1982, he served as the Executive Secretary of the State Department and Special Assistant to Secretaries Christopher and Albright; Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; Acting Director and Principal Deputy Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff; and Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council staff. He earned a B.A.  from LaSalle University and M.Phil. and D.Phil. degree from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar.


These remarks were previously published by U.S. Department of State and can be accessed here.