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From Consciousness & Brain Imaging to Public Policy & Science Diplomacy – A Contemplative Journey

From Consciousness & Brain Imaging to Public Policy & Science Diplomacy - A Contemplative Journey

Dr. Bhuvanesh Awasthi is a graduate of BITS Pilani (Pilani, ‘03), a distinguished behavioral Scientist and transdisciplinary Leader in the science-policy-diplomacy space. He works with the Canadian Federal Government in Ottawa, applying cognitive, behavioral, and neuroscience research to design and implement evidence-informed policy interventions. His academic background includes a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from Macquarie University, Australia, a Master’s in Consciousness Studies from BITS Pilani, and early training in Life Sciences from the University of Pune. Dr. Awasthi has held several prestigious fellowships, including the MITACS – Canadian Science Policy fellowship and the Inter American Institute (IAI) - Science Technology and Policy (STeP) fellowship. His work spans multiple continents, including North America (USA, Canada), South America (Uruguay, Guatemala), Europe (UK, Denmark, Russia), Asia (India, China), and Australia, where he has collaborated with various organizations in academic, business, and public policy contexts.

Dr. Awasthi has also served as a Visiting Professor at Copenhagen Business School and held research positions at many institutions worldwide such as the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (China), University of Glasgow (UK), Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia), University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA) and CSIRO Australia. His academic projects have been funded by national science agencies in the USA (NIH), France (CNRS), and Australia (NHMRC, ARC, CSIRO).  Dr. Awasthi’s research interests include social perception, risky decision-making, and the neuroscience of emotion and perception. He has published extensively in these areas and has been recognized with numerous awards and fellowships. His work has been presented to diverse audiences worldwide, including scientists, policy experts, government officials, and students. 

In addition to research and policy work, Dr. Awasthi is widely invited to offer training, workshops, and talks in evidence-informed contemplative practices, mind-body health (meditation, attention, pleasure, and wellness), cross-cultural dialogue and problem-solving, where he leverages his global experiences to inform a unique approach to human wellbeing and flourishing.

Can you tell us about your academic and career journey?

I pursued an MS in Consciousness Studies from BITS, Pilani. Building on my training in biological sciences, the consciousness studies program fostered a curiosity about the nature of consciousness and the mind-body relationship. I pursued further research in brain imaging of perception, emotions, embodied cognition, neuroeconomics, and consumer perception across eight countries on five continents with academic, industry, startup, and government and international organizations. After a few years of conducting research and teaching, I worked briefly with an applied neuroscience startup that offers AI-enabled Software as a Service (SaaS) based- cognitive training technologies to improve the visual, auditory, cognitive learning, and executive functioning skills in people with learning disabilities.  Similar to civil service officers in India, I am now a public official in Canada, focusing on behavioral insights and experimentation. My day-to-day work involves generating evidence for policy, impact measurement, service delivery, and client experience. 

I developed a deep personal practice of contemplative traditions from a young age (including Vipassana, Pranayama practices and the philosophy of Yoga, Samkhya, Advait-Vedanta, Kashmir Shaivism, and Vaishnavism). I have worked at one of the oldest yoga research institutions in the world, Kaivalyadham, Lonavla, India, where, in addition to research, I taught philosophy, physiology, psychology, and yoga therapy. Later, I worked on meditation and mindfulness topics and published a few widely cited, peer-reviewed articles. I am preparing to teach a master's program (to be launched this fall) on mind-body health and rejuvenation through a US university, focusing on applied teachings from neuroscience and spirituality. 

Science-diplomacy is a relatively new field. Can you share some information and insights?

Science Diplomacy is a relatively new area of international cooperation where science and technology can play a critical role in solving transnational challenges. Following the pandemic and new geopolitical tensions, one can witness this emerging landscape of science and technology for policy diplomacy, with examples of vaccine diplomacy, drone diplomacy, and semiconductor supply chain diplomacy making the headlines. Science diplomacy generally encompasses three main strands:

  • Diplomacy for science: Using diplomatic channels to facilitate international scientific collaboration, such as negotiating research agreements or establishing international research infrastructures.
  • Science for diplomacy: Employing science as a soft power tool to improve diplomatic relations between nations and create goodwill.
  • Science in diplomacy: Directly supporting diplomatic processes through scientific advice and evidence to inform foreign and security policy decisions. 

I have been a science diplomacy fellow with the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI). It is an intergovernmental organization supported by 19 countries in the Americas. I apply cognitive, behavioral, and neuroscience research to design and implement evidence-informed policy interventions across North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean region through these interfaces.  For instance, one of my science diplomacy projects focused on closing the intention-action gap in addressing the transboundary plastic pollution problem across the Americas, focusing on plastic policies across Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Jamaica. In a recent project, I proposed a Pan-American framework for artificial intelligence to address climate change issues, exemplifying the USA, Canada, Brazil, and Chile as case studies. I have also delivered invited talks and workshops on science diplomacy for research scholars at Rutgers University, USA, and IAI science diplomacy leadership workshops in Uruguay and Guatemala. 

In addition, I provide research, advice, and inputs to this network, focusing on financial education and inclusive behavioral finance at OECD - International Network on Financial Education (Paris). I am also a science diplomacy and behavioral science expert at the UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab. I contribute by applying behavioral insights to improve service delivery, client experience, and governance through evidence-informed policy instruments. These projects highlight my role in bridging the gap between scientific research and policy-making, aiming to create impactful and evidence-informed policy solutions on a global scale.

Career in Science Diplomacy

The need for science diplomacy is growing as humanity’s most significant challenges and opportunities are increasingly regional and global, requiring effective partnerships between scientists, policymakers, and diplomats. Science diplomacy is opening up new career paths for scientists and engineers interested in policy and international relations and diplomats with scientific backgrounds. This area, though nascent, offers ample opportunities for entrepreneurial and ingenious individuals that BITS tends to hone quite effectively.