UA Scientist Named First AIP State Department Science Fellow

Lori Stiles
July 13, 2001

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) and the U.S. State Department have selected a University of Arizona scientist to be the first in a new position created to give U.S. foreign policy makers greater access to sound scientific and technological expertise.

George H. Atkinson, professor of chemistry and of optical sciences, will take a year's leave from the UA to accept the assignment as an AIP - State Department Science Fellow.

"As a Fellow selected by a professional scientific society, you will be in a unique and extremely important position," Norman P. Neureiter wrote to Atkinson last month. Neureiter is Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The new program, initially proposed by the AIP, aims to strengthen U.S. foreign policy by "drawing on the best available scientific and technological information in the world," Neureiter wrote.

An October 1999 National Research Council report found that "issues involving science, technology, and health have moved to the forefront of the international diplomatic agenda...(These) aspects play a large role in discussions of such critical topics as nuclear non-proliferation, use of outer space, population growth, adequate and safe food supply, climate change, infectious diseases, energy resources, and competitiveness of industrial technologies....Expert science, technology and health knowledge is essential to the anticipation and resolution of problems and to the achievement of foreign policy goals."

In response, in May 2000, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pledged "development of an active partnership with the scientific community." One among a number of proposals was "to identify individuals in academia and the private sector who could be brought in on a non-career basis to meet particular requirements for scientific and technologically qualified personnel," possibly by fellowship programs sponsored by scientific societies.

Atkinson said, "I became extremely interested in accepting this position since I believe it has the potential of opening new options for the scientific community to constructively participate in addressing the important foreign policy issues of the day. It is an exciting opportunity. Personally, I feel honored by the support expressed by my colleagues and the commitment of State Department officials."

Contacts in Washington asked Atkinson to apply for the position last March. He was invited by the AIP and the State Department for an interview in May, and Neureiter, on behalf of the selection committee, offered him the position the day after the interview.

Supportive UA administrators worked to reassign Atkinson's teaching load so that he could accept the offer. Atkinson will manage his ongoing research projects with the help of colleagues and senior research students, develop a new undergraduate general education course, and keep other professional commitments during his year's leave.

"This position is viewed as an open-ended opportunity to be defined. The committee was very interested in someone who is willing to study the policy-making process and to learn how the global scope of problems involving science and technology addressed by the State Department are handled today," Atkinson said.

Neureiter wrote that Atkinson was selected for his "broad scientific experience, range of international contacts and multi-country experiences and initiative displayed in starting programs with both Germany and Japan."

Atkinson, for example, together with Professor Charles Parmenter from Indiana University, recently organized a symposium held at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. The symposium of American scientists honored the Alexander von Humboldt program, which since World War II has funded thousands of scientists, most of them American, to visit Germany to collaborate in scientific programs.

Neureiter wrote to Atkinson, "You were selected based on our committee's judgement that you are admirably equipped to carry out this pioneering work in an institution where the traditional culture has been quite remote from science and engineering. How well you relate to the regional and policy bureaus of the Department, and how well you are able to demonstrate the value to them of a solid scientific basis for many of their decisions, will have a profound effect on the success of our attempts to raise the overall science and technology literacy here and to bring in more Fellows from other professional societies."

"People working in the political process are not normally attuned to the uncertainty associated with results obtained from scientific studies," Atkinson said. "As are many others, policy makers can be vulnerable to scientific arguments used to support a particular conclusion rather than designed to evaluate an issue. And they are often required to make policy decisions rapidly without the time to digest scientific details. They would benefit from access to scientists who thoughtfully pay attention to foreign policy questions and address them with openness and candor.

"My role, I believe, is to be sure that sound scientific information is available, as clearly and concisely articulated as possible. I view my role as a facilitator, trying to find mechanisms to introduce science into the governmental system responsible for foreign policy. The scientific community needs to find a more effective way to constructively participate in such policy-making processes," he said.

Atkinson, 56, has been a chemistry and optical science professor at the University of Arizona since 1983. He was head of the UA chemistry department from 1983-88. His research focus is on the molecular dynamics of fast (picosecond) chemical and biophysical reactions (vision) and on astrophysical spectroscopy.

He earned a bachelor of science degree with honors from Eckerd College (1967) and a doctoral degree from Indiana University (1971), worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Standards (1971-73), and taught as a member of the chemistry department faculty at Syracuse University (1973-83).

His awards for teaching while at the UA include the Five-Star Teaching Award, selected by students as the outstanding teacher on campus (1992), and the Provost Award for Teaching Innovation (1988). He has been a Senior SERC Fellow at Oxford University and the Royal Institution of Great Britain (1983), Lady Davis Professor at Hebrew University and the Technion, Israel (1990-92), Senior Fulbright Professor, Federal Republic of Germany (1990), Senior Alexander von Humboldt Awardee at the Technical University of Munich (1989-99), and a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo (1987-1992). He also has received the Outstanding Alumni Award from Eckerd College (1985) and a medal recognizing his contributions from the University of Tokyo (1992). He was recently elected as a titular member of the Division of Physical and Biophysical for the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Just back from a IUPAC meeting and presenting a series of scientific lectures in Australia, Atkinson leaves for Washington before the end of July.

When asked what he hopes to accomplish in one year, Atkinson said, "If I am able to understand the foreign policy system as it involves science and technology and to effectively articulate the results to others, I would be pleased. I would hope to convey how other scientists might participate. Of course, I would also hope to constructively contribute to a least some of the contemporary issues facing the State Department."


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