GUEST BLOG: Science Diplomacy – Reflections from Quebec and Canada

This blog is a reflection on a Panel Discussion that occurred 10th May 2017 at the Association Francophone Pour Le Savoir (ACFAS) 2017 Congress in Montreal, Canada.

Written by: Tina Gruosso
Adapted by: Mary-Rose Bradley-Gill, Kim Phan and Tina Gruosso

Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Quebec
Paul Dufour, fellow and adjunct professor at the Institute for Science, Society and
Policy in the University of Ottawa
Stéphane Roussel, Director of CIRRICQ1
Michel Lafleur, Associate Deputy Minister for Bilateral Affairs, Province of Quebec
Denis Robert, Director of Foreign Policy Research at Global Affairs Canada
Nicolas Chapuis, Ambassador of France to Canada
Nick Baker, Consul General of Great Britain in Montreal
Urs Obrist, Senior Science and Technology Counsellor at Embassy of Switzerland
to Canada
Michel Robitaille, Chief Executive Officer at LOJIQ2
Jean Lebel, President of IDRC3
Maryse Lassonde, President of the Royal Society of Canada and the Scientific Director of Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies4
Pierre Marc Johnson, counsel and former Premier of Quebec

Moderator :
Yanick Villedieu, Journalist at ICI Radio-Canada Première



At the 85th ACFAS5 congress, the FRQ6 organized a “reflection on the use of science diplomacy in Quebec and Canada”. While science diplomacy is, de facto, the business of many Quebec entities, it lacks any real organizational structure and global strategy in Quebec, as was underlined by Michel Robitaille, the CEO of LOJIQ.

In 2010, the Royal Society of London and the AAAS7 jointly published a report entitled “New frontiers in science diplomacy” that explains and defines the different forms of science diplomacy. Notably, there is an important distinction between diplomacy for science, and science for diplomacy.


Diplomacy for science

Diplomacy for science brings together several international relations initiatives that will allow or facilitate scientific collaborations. As highlighted by the French ambassador Nicolas Chapuis, “The more international cooperation there is, the more international co-publications there are. Researchers do not need embassies to communicate, but rather to open doors that do not open naturally. There is a phenomenon of apnea in science, each researcher has a small circle of subscribers, a network; but who reads publications in Chinese? Diplomacy serves to broaden the sharing network of the scientist.”


Science for diplomacy

Science for diplomacy groups together different methods by which science helps the establishment of good international relations. Denis Robert, Director of Foreign Policy Research at Global Affairs Canada, highlighted that science can serve as a diplomatic tool to alleviate tensions in international relationships and can help find durable solutions by relying on evidence. Science can also help rethink diplomacy. Indeed, the example of cyberattacks demonstrates the disruptive effect of science on diplomatic relations and leads to rethink diplomatic strategy and deterrence policy.


The concept of “soft power”

“Soft power” does not determine the power of a state on the basis of a military or economic model (“hard power”) but by the capacity of conviction, to convince another government that a proposal is for the common good. This requires credibility, competence, and prestige rather than coercion. “A scientist has more credibility with the population than a politician,” explained Stéphane Roussel, Director of CIRRICQ.

“Soft power” is a diplomacy tool aimed to improve the image of a state so as to be better received by the public and foreign nations. A government can then influence another society by addressing the society itself instead of its government (e.g. through scientific visits, exchanges, and unofficial networks including cultural or scientific key opinion leaders).


Science diplomacy, a win-win relationship

By using science as a diplomatic tool, a state can polish its image, establish credibility in international forums, increase its level of influence (“soft power”), and also promote the recruitment of talent. This allows researchers to expand their network, better disseminate scientific results, and provide funding through increased visibility.


Science, a vehicle for humanist values

Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Quebec, explained that “the concept of science diplomacy conveys values essential to international relations such as openness, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing. Science has no borders”. Using science to strengthen these values in political environments would promote the development of evidence-based policies.

Science is not value-neutral, according to Chapuis. “Science is about openness and surpassing oneself. We are human, our actions towards others are based on an understanding of mutual respect and humility. Science diplomacy plays a role in people’s rights by denouncing falsehoods, discouraging inward-looking attitudes, and by encouraging collaboration and mobility”. Science diplomacy, by disseminating the science of human values, would thus be a tool for the respect of human rights.


The French, Swiss, and British models

The French ambassador explained France’s implementation of diplomacy, particularly in terms of science diplomacy. Accordingly, France published a report in 20138 that outlined its position, strategic objectives, and plan of action in these matters.

France has a network of embassies and consulates with science advisors across 80 countries. In addition, there are 27 French research institutes abroad (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and CNRS9). Beyond collaborations, these institutes serve as foreign extensions of France that have no political affiliations. Representative offices of all major French research organizations (CNRS, Institut Pasteur, CEA10, IRD11, INRIA12, INSERM13) are present across 40 countries. For 10 years, many large French schools have opened doors abroad: NormaleSup in Shanghai, École Centrale in Beijing, Airbus Aerospace Training Centre in Asia, and a nuclear power school in Schenzhen. Through this international presence, France aims to maintain the highest level of excellence in French science (58 Nobel Prizes, 11 Fields Medals, 5th in scientific publication output) and address global challenges such as climate change, cyber-security, energy, and health.

Nick Baker, British Consul General, explained that science in Great Britain is rooted in its governmental machinery – each department has a scientific expert. Additionally, since 2001, the United Kingdom has established a network of science advisors positioning science as a very important tool in its diplomacy endeavors.

For example, this network of advisors was central in the recent campaign targeting antimicrobial resistance entitled “Medicines no longer work”, in which British politicians organized a 10 million pound competition to uncover a solution to this international issue. A similar initiative to treat dementia has also been launched.

The priorities of Urs Obrist, science and technology advisor at the Swiss embassy, include collaboration for innovation, arctic research, and science diplomacy as well as training and education for professionals. The first science advisor position of the Swiss confederation was created in the United States in 1958. The Swiss government believes in the flexibility of systems. The “Swissnex” network consists of Swiss scientific consulates that inform and advise. They support start-ups at the onset of their development and promote the international exchange of information (e.g. delegation visit and event in Tokyo with the co-inventor of Swatch watches). “Switzerland is not blessed with natural resources, it has grey matter to promote” underlines Obrist, hence the importance of “soft power” in Swiss diplomacy. Testament to their success in this endeavour, Switzerland has won the “World Leading Innovator” prize and is home to universities that are highly ranked in the world. Swiss investment in the Swissnex network represents a total of 8.8 million Swiss francs each year, of which 2.9 million are covered by partner contributions. “More than creating a network, it is to create a community to encourage moments of ‘serendipity’, the fortunate chance discoveries” underlines Obrist.


Reconciling national interests and global interests while avoiding conflict

Science is a global endeavor by definition, while diplomacy is more focused on national interests. At first glance, one can thus identify a conflict between the philosophies of science and diplomacy because the objectives are different. Paul Dufour, affiliated researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, explains, “Just as there are two languages and two cultures in Quebec, there are two cultures in science diplomacy. Scientists believe diplomats take too long to make decisions and diplomats believe scientists take too long to generate results.”

Former Premier of Quebec Pierre Marc Johnson highlights cultural differences between the two communities. Diplomacy represents the interests of the State through dialogue, exchange, and negotiation between countries. Johnson states that “The diplomacy of ‘working well together’ is nice but a clear definition of interests is required. Diplomats must define their interests in their relations with others. The bulk of the research must be non-directed all the while ensuring that researchers are not too disconnected from real-world issues. Research is integral to the notion of freedom “.

Roussel poses the following question: “Is science diplomacy a means of putting science at the service of the national interest?” He then cautions, “Scientific freedom does not go hand-in-hand with the discipline imposed by diplomacy.” Indeed, the government may not want to establish diplomatic relations with certain partners, which poses an obstacle to scientists’ freedom. Similarly, goal-directed science brings risks as it may conflict with the ideological positions of the government (e.g. a science-averse government as with the election of Donald Trump) – nowadays coined as “alternative facts”. How far can the government go in directing scientific research? “The loss of freedom could be the price to pay for a possible increase in funding,” warns Roussel before adding that “one must be vigilant for further problems such as the commercialization of knowledge and the control of the state through technology.”


Science diplomacy and citizen engagement

Louis Beaulieu, CEO of Transplant Quebec and member of the FRQS14, asks: How can science diplomacy be understood by the ordinary citizen and have social relevance?

Chapuis highlights that diplomacy is socially relevant and that the national community grows through the projects and challenges it embraces. To engage the public, ambitious and relatable projects are needed, such as the historical transatlantic flight. He adds: “The citizen is not angry with scholars except when they give up their profession. When scientists are silent, democracy is in danger.” In the United Kingdom, Baker explains that “engaging the public requires concrete results and [it is necessary] to develop communication through social media.”


The role of Quebec and Canada: the current state and future efforts

A good example of science diplomacy is the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Nunavut. This station will be the main image of Canada in the Great North for research and diplomacy. It will not only allow for scientific advances but also positively reflect on Canada.

Science diplomacy falls within the jurisdiction of the provinces. There is a very solid scientific foundation in Montreal (rated as one of the best cities for students) but there is no overall vision for science diplomacy at the provincial level. Among non-sovereign states, Quebec has a significant presence abroad (of delegations and representatives from Quebec) which would aid in establishing a provincial strategy for science diplomacy. Quebec has a strong political identity due to of the cultural and linguistic differences with English-speaking Canada. Quebec therefore has a strong interest in showcasing its distinctiveness at the international level. A non-sovereign state does not possess a “hard power” (no Quebec army), so “soft power” becomes an interesting diplomatic tool. Maryse Lassonde, of the Royal Society of Canada and the FRQNT, refers to a lack of representation not only of women in general but also of Quebecers at the level of the major Canadian research prizes, where only École Polytechnique is represented as a French-speaking Quebec university.

Michel Lafleur, Associate Deputy Minister for Bilateral Affairs, outlined the three objectives of Québec’s new international policy:

  • Making a more prosperous Quebec,
  • Working for a sustainably safe and just world
  • Promoting Quebec’s creativity, culture, knowledge, and distinctiveness.

There are different types of support for research and innovation in Quebec that constitute a form of science diplomacy such as support for research cited in a report by the Department of Québec’s International Policy15. For example, a Université Laval group is part of the “Bridges” program in genomics and oncology, a collaboration involving groups from 17 different nationalities. The program is funded by the European Commission. Furthermore, a team from the Université de Sherbrooke is also part of the “Exascan” program.

Quebec supports research and innovation through the FRQ, bilateral cooperation agreements, and collaborations for the setup and development of research institutes. For example, the creation of the Nordic Institute of Quebec in 2014 (Universities of Laval, McGill and INRS) and the France-Quebec Institute for support of the maritime sector. The last item highlighted by Michel Lafleur concerns actions to attract international scientific organizations like “Future Earth”, of which Montreal is among the five poles. The others are in Paris, Tokyo, Stockholm, and Colorado in the United States.

Jean Lebel, President of the CRDI, gives a number of examples of the CRDI’s role in promoting the advancement of Canada. He cited in particular the management of the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the support of scientific research in South Africa at the time of the election of Nelson Mandela. This scientific assistance represents an important diplomatic enterprise. These actions are not clearly identified as science diplomacy, but are a basis for developing foreign policies.

The Chief Scientist of Quebec highlights Quebec’s desire to position itself as a major player in science diplomacy by referring to the visit of a Quebec delegation to Israel and the West Bank in May 2017. During this mission, Premier Philippe Couillard and the Minister of Economy, Science and Innovation, Dominique Anglade, aimed to discuss innovation and new technologies. This mission led to the signing of a third Quebec-Israel agreement and several agreements on science and technology, including a scientific collaboration between the FRQ and PALAST16.

Issues, challenges, and proposals

As Dr. Rémi Quirion points out, there is a significant intellectual and innovative capacity in Quebec. Nicolas Chapuis confirms that Canada has always been an innovative nation but suffers from a lack of investment from previous administrations. He also suggests that Canada loses in innovation due to a decline in outbound mobility, that is, Canada welcomes many immigrants but few Canadians emigrate.

At the provincial level, the question is: who should lay the foundations and set objectives for scientific diplomacy in Quebec? The scientists? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs? As previously mentioned, there is not only a problem of coordination but also a difference of organizational culture. As Roussel points out, one of the challenges of scientific diplomacy will be to reconcile the two philosophies of science and diplomacy. In response, the Chief Scientist has affirmed his commitment to further develop relations between researchers and diplomats, through 3- or 6- month internships in the government to understand the reality of the diplomatic environment and vice versa. This cross-pollination would also facilitate communication between these two worlds, which are too often isolated from one another. The Chief Scientist also confirmed his willingness to expand the scientific diplomacy training workshops similar to UNESCO’s initiatives.

Scientific diplomacy is essential to solving major societal challenges beyond our borders, such as pandemics, climate change, and cyber security. Some initiatives such as COP21 and “Future Earth” exemplify this desire for collaboration between science and politics.

Indeed, Michel Lafleur, along with other speakers, stresses the high cost of research. The resulting international collaborations would allow for risk-sharing on the international scene thus facilitating knowledge development.

The Consul General of Israel to Montreal, Ziv Nevo Kulman, recalls the high cost of deploying a network of scientific advisors and proposes an alternative cost-effective option: signing agreements where each government financially supports its own scientists.

Johnson adds, “There must be an awareness of the need for globalisation of activities. One should not shy away from cooperation between the state and the private sector; this would undermine the enormous need for knowledge”. The foundation of the academic world is the right to withdraw, to dissent.”

Michel Robitaille proposes to establish a directory of Quebec researchers in the world, the creation of new science advisor positions, the implementation of major international scientific missions led by a minister, and the creation of a major scientific hub in Quebec to enhance that which is underway in the Quebec in terms of science and innovation.

Finally, it is important to identify key international events to involve young researchers from Quebec.


The role of the future generation

Paul Dufour concluded by emphasizing the importance of the future generation in this process, “It is important that young people get involved and be well trained.” It is essential to train young people on how our international policy works, notably through the initiatives mentioned previously, such as the science diplomacy workshops17 co- organized by AAAS and TWAS18 in Trieste, the science diplomacy in the arctic courses19 at the University of Dartmouth, as well as the international multidisciplinary collaborations supported by LOJIQ.



1 Centre Interuniversitaire de Recherche sur les Relations Internationales du Canada et du Québec

(Interuniversity Research Center on International Relations of Canada and Quebec)

2 Les Offices jeunesse internationaux du Québec (International Youth Office of Quebec)

3 Centre de recherche pour le développement international (International development research center) 

4 Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies (Quebec Research Funding Agency – Nature and Technology)

5 Association Francophone Pour Le Savoir (Francophone Association for Knowledge)

6 Fonds de Recherche du Québec (Quebec Research Funding Agency)

7 American Association for the Advancement of Science

8 « Science Diplomacy for France – Report » (february 2013) available at

9 Centre national de la recherche scientifique (French National Center for Scientific Research)

10 Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission)

11 Institut de recherche pour le développement (French Research Institute for Development)

12 Institut national de recherche en informatique et en automatique (French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation)

13 Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research)

14 Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (Quebec Research Funding Agency – Health)

15 « Quebec on the world stage : involved, engaged, thriving » available at

16 Palestine Academy for Science and Technology


18 The World Academy of Sciences