A World Cup for science diplomacy

Science is the most international of languages and now is a good time to think about how countries use and disseminate knowledge to engage in discourse and partnerships. Photo by Peter Fuchs
Science is the most international of languages – now is a good time to think about how countries use and disseminate knowledge to engage in discourse and partnerships. Photo by Peter Fuchs

By Paul Dufour.

This article was first published in Research Fortnight.

In his speeches when he travels abroad, Canada’s governor-general David Johnston is fond of referring to “thediplomacy of knowledge”, defined as the ability and willingness to share learning across borders. This is nothing new: science is the most international of languages, and has long been well placed to assist in discourse and partnership building between nations.

But, perhaps driven by the increasingly international and collaborative nature of science, the rise in multinational endeavours such as Cern, the Square Kilometre Array and the Iter fusion reactor, and global issues such as climate change, the ideas of science for diplomacy and diplomacy for science are becoming increasingly prominent on the geopolitical agenda. Now is a good time to think about how countries use and disseminate knowledge to engage in discourse and partnerships.

Any nation’s science is stronger for looking beyond national borders. Exposure to global standards of excellence helps maintain and improve the quality of domestic science. Individual researchers are better for access to the frontiers of science, and international collaborations with the world’s leading scientists strengthen research impact. Visits, exchanges and immigration by overseas scientists also strengthen domestic science.

It’s difficult to say precisely where scientific collaboration shades into science diplomacy, but it’s easy to point to products of international science that go beyond the scientific. A nation can enhance its national security and economic prosperity by fostering improved conditions in other countries through increased technical capability, and some issues are of such a global nature that no country can address them alone. Science diplomacy can also achieve many of the same things as regular diplomacy. It can lead to a better understanding of other cultures, values and ways of doing business. It discharges obligations negotiated in connection with treaties. And it can play a part in solving geopolitical conflicts and opening up avenues for cooperation.

This summer, the World Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a special workshop and training course in Trieste, Italy. Participants came from 32 nations: from countries with well-established science systems, from emerging and developing nations, and from states where conventional diplomatic relations with the rest of the world range from the strained to the virtually non-existent.

The workshop, which ran from 8 to 13 June, was designed to improve participants’ ability to develop science diplomacy projects by introducing them to various case studies at national, regional and multinational scales. Through breakout groups guided by specialists, areas such as governance structures, the role of scientists, the responsibility of the diplomatic community and implications at levels from the regional to the global were investigated and analysed.

Each group’s results were presented in a session on the final day of the workshop, following presentations that provided examples of science diplomacy. These included: the unique aspects of Iter; the role of science academies, non-governmental organisations and science education, including the Global Young Academy; and cooperation in east Africa and east Asia.

Science for and in diplomacy is a nebulous concept. To give an obvious example, governance of the international spaces that constitute roughly 70 per cent of the Earth outside national borders, such as the oceans, requires a strong element of science advice. But science diplomacy can also help to provide guidance in conflict resolution, address global security concerns and build engagement in multinational projects.

One conclusion at the Trieste meeting was that more also needs to be done to ensure that science is on tap to effect good foreign, trade and aid policy. And perhaps the main goal was summed up by Romain Murenzi, executive director of the World Academy of Sciences: “In the long run, by training people from many countries, we believe that this course can help make contributions to the sustainability of the planet.”

Take water as a critical issue. Two-thirds of the world’s population will face a lack of water in the next 20 years if today’s trends in climate change, population growth, rural-to-urban migration and consumption continue.

More than one-third of people worldwide live in areas where the water supply is scarce or insufficient. Moreover, available fresh water is threatened by pollution, poor management and increasing commodification.

Problematic access policies limit many communities’ supply of clean and potable water. Without urgent action, the conflict between water supply and demand is set to get worse. Resolving the issue will require a collaborative approach that promotes the exchange of knowledge and development of local capacity in underresourced regions.

Participants at the workshop illustrated this with a case study on the Nile basin that highlighted the need for greater exchange of sound evidence, scientific collaboration and research. The case also revealed the need for increased scientific literacy within the diplomatic apparatus, to enable the foreign policy structures of the surrounding countries to attain a more refined capacity to interpret science.

The ability to use the ‘soft power’ of science as a strategic tool in matters of foreign relations, aid and international commerce is often overlooked. Scientists and diplomats can also work together to make a country forward-looking and improve its public outreach. An experiment in this area is the SKA radio telescope, led jointly by South Africa and Australia. Construction of the SKA, which has a budget of about $2 billion (£1.2bn), is scheduled to begin in 2018 for initial observations by 2020 and full operation by 2025.

Another is Sesame, the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, which is under construction in Jordan. Modelled on Cern, Sesame is a partnership between Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Synchrotrons are large and expensive facilities, usually only found in wealthy countries. By pooling resources, Sesame has the potential to build scientific capacity in the region. It can also serve to build scientific and cultural bridges between diverse societies, and contribute to a culture of peace through transboundary cooperation in science.

This is particularly important as countries around the world compete to attract top talent and innovative minds, in the hope of fuelling economic growth and addressing social inequalities. Brazil’s Science without Borders programme is a great example of how a country can benefit from international connections and build for the future. The aim is to send 101,000 Brazilian students

abroad to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects by 2015. The Brazilian government is funding 75,000 scholarships, and industry the other 26,000.

The movement of people can also play a huge role. Expatriate skills and expertise can be leveraged to build stronger knowledge capacity back home. Another case study at Trieste examined what needs to be done to shape a 21st-century PhD that is easier to operate in the fast-moving international spheres of science and politics.

Scientists should recognise the opportunities in the burgeoning global policy arena. As participants in Trieste learned from how the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Cern and the IAP global network of science academies were established, the skills of scientists are well suited for influencing public policy—“naturally they have the future in their bones”, as the novelist CP Snow once remarked. Science academies are playing a growing role, through activities such as issuing statements on policy issues and assisting in the development of grand challenges including pandemics, maternal and child health, and food security. Working groups at the meeting in Trieste explored what it would take to establish an institute for science diplomacy, as well as better science education for more informed civic dialogue and enhanced career options.

But there are cautionary notes to be struck. Science can prepare the ground for diplomatic initiatives, and benefit from diplomatic agreements, but it cannot provide the solutions to either. As a tool of foreign policy, science is limited in its ability to affect domestic and global outcomes. The diplomatic community has its own set of responsibilities.

In Trieste, participants noted that more should be done in the world’s state departments to enhance their appreciation of science in diplomacy. Whether they come through the Global Development Lab at the United States Agency for International Development, via existing networks of science envoys and advisers or through long-standing institutions such as the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, efforts to communicate the impacts of science diplomacy must be encouraged.

A US House of Representatives committee report on foreign affairs said it well as early as 1971: “Science and technology have effected changes in the substantive tasks of foreign policy, in the methodology of diplomacy, in the management of information on which diplomacy is based, in the intellectual training of diplomats, in the range of present options of negotiations, and in the prospects of future evolution of diplomatic foreign policy objectives and the international political system.”

Scientists can assist in diplomacy at the same time as recognising the boundaries of their influence, but diplomats also need to appreciate and learn about the emerging global currency for healthier international relations. That means using sound evidence and judiciously applied knowledge to help create a better world. Trieste provided a superb venue for a fresh look at this continuing dialogue.

Paul Dufour is a fellow and adjunct professor at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.