IU students advise U.S. Embassy in Vietnam via Diplomacy Lab course

Thirteen IU Bloomington students spent the spring 2017 semester learning all they could about the production and consumption of energy in Vietnam in a course titled "Environmental and Energy Diplomacy." The course was more than an academic exercise.

Part of IU's contribution to the U.S. State Department's Diplomacy Lab program, the course enabled students to analyze energy-related issues and produce a report on policy challenges and opportunities for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. Students capped the semester by briefing Ted Osius, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, on their findings.

"The ambassador seemed genuinely impressed by the work the team had done and interested in following up on the recommendations," said Michael Hamburger, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the lead instructor for the course.

Diplomacy Lab is a program in which the State Department can "course-source" research and innovation related to global policy challenges. Hamburger learned about it when he spent the 2015-16 academic year working with the State Department as a Jefferson Science Fellow.

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Students in an IU Diplomacy Lab course brief Ted Osius, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, on energy policy.

Universities "bid" on topics posted by the department, which selects the best proposals. IU Bloomington was awarded the Vietnam energy policy course in the fall of 2016. Hamburger and John Rupp, Indiana Geological Survey senior research scientist, taught the course with help from other IU faculty experts.

Energy production and consumption are critical issues in Vietnam, Hamburger said. The country's economy is growing rapidly, creating increased demand for energy. Policymakers face decisions about whether to expand the country's fossil-fuel and hydroelectric resources or to import more energy.

Vietnam ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, creating an incentive to reduce emissions and move away from relying on coal. The country's tense relations with China and other neighbors and its partial transition from a state-controlled to a market economy create further complications.

The IU class, which included seven graduate students and six undergraduates, examined the issues from economic, geopolitical, and public health and environmental perspectives and produced a 25-page report of analysis and policy recommendations.

The report pointed to opportunities for U.S. and Vietnamese cooperation in economic development and highlighted risks if Vietnam increases its reliance on fossil fuels. In addition to public health problems associated with burning coal, Vietnam's long and low-lying coastline makes it one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change and sea-level rise.

Adrienne Keller signed up for the course because of an interest in applying science to policy questions, even though it was an academic detour from her work on a Ph.D. in biology, focusing on forest ecology.

"It was probably one of the most interesting experiences I had all semester," she said. "We really learned a lot, not only from the faculty but from our peers."

Keller helped develop and present a key recommendation from the group: Encourage U.S. companies to help develop solar energy for use in the important Vietnamese textile and garment industries.

"If you look at the tags on your clothes, a lot of them are made in Vietnam," she said. "And the U.S. is the biggest export market. There is definitely an economic connection."

Trevor Owens, who graduated this month with a degree in international studies and will start a master's program in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, also worked on issues and recommendations related to renewable energy.

"It was really a great opportunity," he said. "The graduate students were pretty knowledgeable, and we undergraduates were able to learn from them. It was really nice to kind of be thrown into the course and to have high expectations right off the bat."

The course also required some flexibility, because transition in the U.S. government suggested changes in emphasis. Embassy employees had been working on the assumption the U.S. would be part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, for example, but President Donald Trump jettisoned the deal.

During the semester, students and instructors kept in touch with embassy staff through email and video conversations. When the report was done, Heather Rogers, deputy counselor for economic affairs at the embassy, arranged for students to brief the ambassador on their findings. The briefing took place via video bridge from the Gill Conference Room in IU's Multidisciplinary Science Building II.

"We got a real sense, both from the ambassador and our point of contact at the embassy, that they're very interested in taking some of our proposals and actually trying to turn them into policy," Hamburger said.