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Costa Rica’s Ambassador Stands at Intersection of Science and Diplomacy

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Years after it was discredited, President Donald Trump continues to parrot the theory that lifesaving vaccines cause autism. And up until his inauguration, he insisted that global warming was a “total hoax” perpetrated by China to destroy the U.S. economy. In early March, Scott Pruitt — the man Trump named to head the Environmental Protection Agency — contradicted 95 percent of the world’s top experts and even the EPA’s own website by declaring that climate change has nothing to do with human activity.

a5.cover.costa.rica.macaya.science.storyWith Trump’s drastic budget cuts threatening to gut not only the EPA but also the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), science itself has clearly taken a backseat at the Trump White House. Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post that the proposed cuts for fiscal 2018 would cause “seismic disruption” in government-funded medical and scientific research that could threaten everything from an EPA initiative to clean up the Chesapeake Bay; to a satellite program that monitors the earth’s climate and solar storms; to the Fogarty International Center. That center, which brings together health research institutions around the world to combat transmittable diseases such as the flu, Zika virus and bioterrorism agents, would be shut down under the president’s proposed budget — even though its elimination saves less than $70 million.

Trump’s so-called war on science sparked such a backlash that a March for Science drew thousands on April 22 to D.C. and cities across the country.

But quite the opposite is happening at the nearby Embassy of Costa Rica, where “science diplomacy” has become almost a mantra. This is hardly a coincidence given that Costa Rica’s affable ambassador here, Román Macaya, was a biochemist long before he became a diplomat.

In fact, as much as Trump seems to disdain science, Macaya embraces it.

“If you take any two disciplines — it could be art and computer science, for example, or biology and law, or diplomacy and science — you can conceptually play a mind game. Put them right next to each other and imagine what happens at the intersection of those two disciplines,” Macaya explained.

“Science diplomacy is one of these mixed agendas. Washington is the capital with the most embassies in the world, and the embassies here tend to be the most important of their respective countries,” he said. “But if you’re focused only on security, you’re going to get lost in the crowd.”

As for Trump’s anti-science stances, Macaya diplomatically sidestepped the issue, focusing instead on his country’s embrace of science diplomacy.

“What we have been practicing at the embassy, which is science diplomacy, obviously highlights the importance we give to science, the possibility of using science to make the best decisions, and to develop Costa Rica’s new economy,” he said. “We’re fully committed to mitigating climate change and risk management. This is a high priority in Costa Rica, and we hope that ambition is shared as broadly as possible.”

That Costa Rica has linked itself so strongly to the sciences might come as a surprise to most Americans, who tend to associate this small tropical nation of 4.8 million with ecotourism, bananas and gourmet coffee. Yet it also became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish its army, in 1948, and has since pursued a liberal policy of universal health care and education that has made it the envy of Latin America.

As a result, the country has attracted billions of dollars in high-tech investment by Fortune 500 companies ranging from Intel to Medtronic. For years, Costa Rica has been known for producing high-value products and services — a trend that will only accelerate as the West Virginia-size country makes a name for itself in such diverse areas as solar energy, medical research and even aerospace technology.

“It just so happens that what we’ve given a high priority at our embassy hits a sweet spot,” Macaya told The Diplomat. “It’s of high relevance for what we need in Costa Rica, and it’s an area where the agenda can be very rich, especially for a very small embassy like ours, with only seven people, including my driver.”

We interviewed Macaya at length in the wood-paneled office of his residence in Bethesda, Md., which is adorned with framed certificates, diplomas and first-day covers of Costa Rican commemorative stamps. He had just come back from the University of Arizona, where he participated in an event on science diplomacy. The week before that, Macaya was in Boston for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). And that same week, he appeared on a panel at the University of Maryland in Baltimore discussing the Zika virus.

“I’ve made some career changes. I was a scientist, then went into business, then into health care, then into politics and now diplomacy. And whenever you’re looking at potential career changes, there’s a little fear,” said the father of four, who speaks English with no hint of an accent, admitting that at one point, he feared his 13 years in a lab coat would end up wasted.

The irony is that both he and Trump ran for president and both attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School — considered one of the nation’s finest business schools — yet only one of them ended up running a country.

a5.cover.costa.rica.flags.storyAfter all, Macaya joked, “What are the odds that a Wharton graduate with no political experience decides he’s going to leave the private sector, run for president and win?”

Macaya, 50, graduated Wharton in 1998, three decades after Trump did. In fact, in October 2014, about eight months before Trump launched his presidential campaign, both men attended a dinner for Wharton alumni at Washington’s Park Hyatt Hotel. But that, and the fact that Macaya also ran for president of his country (and lost), is where any similarity between the two men ends.

A love of science runs deep in Macaya’s veins. His father was a chemical engineer for Dow Chemical Co. and, as such, spent much of his life in the United States. The future ambassador was born in Florida and moved back to Costa Rica at the age of 3.

As an undergraduate student at Vermont’s Middlebury College, Macaya majored in chemistry and minored in modern art.

“I decided I really liked what was happening in life sciences. It was a blossoming field in the 1980s, so I went for a Ph.D. in biochemistry from UCLA.”

Macaya’s first publication as a graduate student appeared in Science magazine. His 197-page doctoral thesis was titled “NMR Studies of Intramolecular DNA Triplexes and Quadruplexes.” That got him hired straight out of grad school by New Jersey-based PharmaGenics Inc., which wanted Macaya to set up and run the company’s structural chemistry lab. The company was so pleased, it named him scientist of the year for his contributions on a new pre-clinical drug candidate for cardiovascular disease.

Macaya eventually enrolled at Wharton’s health care management program, reasoning that “the shortcut to get into the business side of biomedical sciences was an MBA from Wharton.” He spent several years in health care — both in clinical research and on the investment side — before deciding to return to Costa Rica once again.

There, Macaya immersed himself in RIMAC, the family chemical business, but on the side began dabbling in politics. He joined the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC in Spanish), which at the time was grabbing headlines for its adamant opposition to the Central American free trade agreement with the United States.

“In 2002, Ottón Solís ran for president in the PAC primary — its first primary ever — and got 20 percent of the vote. In 2006, he ran again, and lost by a 1 percent margin to Oscar Arias,” said Macaya. “I thought there were some campaign strategies and tactics we should have implemented that could have made a difference, but I was unable to convince him, so in 2009, I decided to run myself in the 2010 primary.”

a5.cover.costa.rica.glance.storyYet Macaya didn’t win his own party’s nomination, and after that, he decided to move on.

“Everyone thought I’d run again in 2014, but I decided not to, mostly based on family considerations. Running for president was probably a crazy idea in the first place,” he said. “So when people ask me, ‘How do you go from biochemist to ambassador,’ I tell them, ‘Run for president and lose.’”

That’s exactly what happened. In May 2014, Macaya received a “completely unexpected” call from Costa Rica’s new president, Luis Guillermo Solís, a member of Macaya’s PAC party, asking if he’d be Costa Rica’s next envoy to the United States.

“It’s hard to say no to the president. It had never crossed my mind until that phone call,” he said. “I have to thank President Solís because he made me discover something that I love and that I never would have thought of.”

Macaya wasted no time putting his scientific credentials to work in his new job.

“My very first meeting as ambassador when I arrived in Washington was at the AAAS. I was downtown at Washington Gas setting up our account and had not even presented my credentials to President Obama,” he recalled. “I was in jeans, so I just crossed the street and said I wanted to talk to whoever was in charge of international programs.”

That man, Vaughan Turekian, later became science advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry — a job he continues to hold under Kerry’s replacement, Rex Tillerson. While Turekian couldn’t be reached for comment, Frances Colón, who until mid-January was the deputy science adviser at State, expressed deep concern with the Trump administration.

“Everybody’s worried that we won’t be in the room any more as a voice of reason advocating for evidence-based decision-making, for bringing the best and brightest to the table no matter where they come from or who they are,” she told Nature magazine.

Pruitt’s confirmation as EPA chief has sparked fierce opposition among a wide range of scientists and officials, including Gina McCarthy, his predecessor at EPA.

 “The world of science is about empirical evidence, not beliefs,” McCarthy, an Obama appointee, said in a statement. “When it comes to climate change, the evidence is robust and overwhelmingly clear that the cost of inaction is unacceptably high. I cannot imagine what additional information the administrator might want from scientists for him to understand that.”

Yet Macaya said he’ll keep focusing on science diplomacy regardless of who occupies the White House.

 “Many scientific institutions belong to the state, and others are outside the context of government institutions,” he pointed out. “We’re interacting with all of them — the National Institutes of Health, which have many institutes within it, the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, the State Department, the White House, organizations like AAAS and also nonprofits and companies that collaborate in science and technology. Our engagement with the United States is multi-leveled and broad-based. We want to encourage more interaction with Costa Rica at all levels.

a5.cover.costa.rica.plane.storyThe ambassador continued: “Science diplomacy can be used two ways. Since science should be apolitical, you go where the science takes you. That can allow countries with strained diplomatic relations to continue the conversation on a neutral ground. That has happened many times in history; for example, the Americans and Soviets collaborated in space at the height of the Cold War.”

A more recent example is the scientific cooperation between the United States and Cuba on issues ranging from the protection of endangered marine ecosystems to joint hurricane forecasting in the Gulf of Mexico — even before the two countries restored diplomatic relations in 2015.

“When you have strained relations, you use science to further diplomacy. But we don’t have to break the ice with the U.S. We already have an excellent relationship,” Macaya said, noting that U.S. foreign direct investment in Costa Rica is around $2 billion, and that Costa Rica is now home to 100,000 American expatriates. “So we use diplomacy to further science.”

 

In Costa Rica’s case, it helps that the country already has a solid track record. Few people, he said, are even aware that this small Central American nation’s top source of revenue is high-value services, especially shared corporate services.

“These are usually operations of companies that handle the finances, accounting and human resources, but sometimes very sophisticated processes like engineering design,” he said.

Costa Rica got a huge boost in 1998, when Intel opened a computer chip assembly plant just outside the country’s international airport in San José. At one point, Intel alone accounted for anywhere between 14 and 20 percent of the country’s total exports. Two years ago, the Silicon Valley giant closed its Costa Rica plant but didn’t leave the country.

 

“Now they design computer chips and test new technologies before they go into commercial production, and they handle a lot of the innovation process. Obviously, that requires a much higher level of professionalism,” said Macaya, noting that today, Intel Costa Rica employs 1,500 people — more than when it had a factory there.

Since then, medical devices have replaced computer chips as the country’s leading export. In fact, Costa Rica is home to 70 medical device companies. In 2015, they produced and exported $2.2 billion worth of products ranging from surgical instruments to heart valves and pacemakers — up from $580 million in 2005. Costa Rica is now home to six of the top 20 largest medical device companies in the world, according to investment promotion agency CINDE.

a5.cover.costa.rica.tourism.story

“Costa Rica is not a low-cost production country, so companies producing things that don’t need a lot of intellect don’t go there. But for things like medical devices, which have to pass the FDA and other barriers, that’s where we shine,” the ambassador said. “We don’t have oil, we don’t have extractive industries and we don’t cut down forests to sell wood. We’re not in the commodity business at all. It’s what’s in the brain that counts.”

As such, Macaya has met with Anthony Fauci, head of the NIH’s division of allergies and infectious diseases, about testing a new vaccine for Zika. Costa Rica is also working closely with George Mason University on a similar project.

He also mentioned Franklin Chang, a Costa Rican astronaut-turned-businessman whose Houston-based company, Ad Astra Rocket Co., is developing plasma technology for space travel and is also working on hydrogen and other renewable energy sources that are crucial for ending the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.

“Costa Rica is committed to being an active player in the climate change discussion,” Macaya told The Diplomat. “It’s no coincidence that the last United Nations executive secretary for climate change was [Costa Rican politician] Christiana Figueres. We’re committed to becoming carbon-neutral. Last year, we generated 99 percent of our energy from renewable sources such as hydro, geothermal, wind and biomass.”

Yet the Trump administration has threatened to pull the United States out of the landmark Paris climate deal, which Figueres was largely responsible for crafting (also see "Whatever Trump Decides on Climate Pact, Rest of World Likely to Move Forward"). That summit saw all of the world’s nations agree for the first time to a binding commitment to avoid dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming.

Indeed, as leading voices within the scientific community — from Stephen Hawking to Michael Mann — warn that Trump’s “assault on science” will send humanity back to the dark ages, Macaya declined to criticize his fellow Wharton alumnus. But he did have this to say: “We’re running out of time and we have only a moment in our planet’s history and our species’ history where we can try to slow the warming down to eventually a halt. The conversation on global warming should be guided by science.”


About the Author

Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on May 31, 2017