Science in diplomacy: “On tap but not on top”

Nuclear weapons: a case for science diplomacy

There’s a general consensus in both the scientific and political worlds that the principle of science diplomacy, at least in the somewhat restricted sense of the need to get more and better science into international negotiations, is a desirable objective.

There is less agreement, however, on how far the concept can – or indeed should – be extended to embrace broader goals and objectives, in particular attempts to use science to achieve political or diplomatic goals at the international level.

Science, despite its international characteristics, is no substitute for effective diplomacy. Any more than diplomatic initiatives necessarily lead to good science.

These seem to have been the broad conclusions to emerge from a three-day meeting at Wilton Park in Sussex, UK, organised by the British Foreign Office and the Royal Society, and attended by scientists, government officials and politicians from 17 countries around the world.

The definition of science diplomacy varied widely among participants. Some saw it as a subcategory of “public diplomacy”, or what US diplomats have recently been promoting as “soft power” (“the carrot rather than the stick approach”, as a participant described it).

Others preferred to see it as a core element of the broader concept of “innovation diplomacy”, covering the politics of engagement in the familiar fields of international scientific exchange and technology transfer, but raising these to a higher level as a diplomatic objective.

Whatever definition is used, three particular aspects of the debate became the focus of attention during the Wilton Park meeting: how science can inform the diplomatic process; how diplomacy can assist science in achieving its objectives; and, finally, how science can provide a channel for quasi-diplomatic exchanges by forming an apparently neutral bridge between countries.

There was little disagreement on the first of these. Indeed for many, given the increasing number of international issues with a scientific dimension that politicians have to deal with, this is essentially what the core of science diplomacy should be about.

Chris Whitty, for example, chief scientist at the UK’s Department for International Development, described how knowledge about the threat raised by the spread of the highly damaging plant disease stem rust had been an important input by researchers into discussions by politicians and diplomats over strategies for persuading Afghan farmers to shift from the production of opium to wheat.

Others pointed out that the scientific community had played a major role in drawing attention to issues such as the links between chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere and the growth of the ozone hole, or between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Each has made essential contributions to policy decisions.

Acknowledging this role for science has some important implications. No-one dissented when Rohinton Medhora, from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, complained of the lack of adequate scientific expertise in the embassies of many countries of the developed and developing world alike.

Nor – perhaps predictably – was there any major disagreement that diplomatic initiatives can both help and occasionally hinder the process of science. On the positive side, such diplomacy can play a significant role in facilitating science exchange and the launch of international science projects, both essential for the development of modern science.

Europe’s framework programme of research programmes was quoted as a successful advantage of the first of these. Examples of the second range from the establishment of the European Organisation of Nuclear Research (usually known as CERN) in Switzerland after the Second World War, to current efforts to build a large new nuclear fusion facility (ITER).

Less positively, increasing restrictions on entry to certain countries, and in particular the United States after the 9/11 attacks in New York and elsewhere, have significantly impeded scientific exchange programmes. Here the challenge for diplomats was seen as helping to find ways to ease the burdens of such restrictions.

The broadest gaps in understanding the potential of scientific diplomacy lay in the third category, namely the use of science as a channel of international diplomacy, either as a way of helping to forge consensus on contentious issues, or as a catalyst for peace in situations of conflict.

On the first of these, some pointed to recent climate change negotiations, and in particular the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as a good example, of the way that the scientific community can provide a strong rationale for joint international action.

But others referred to the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit last December to come up with a meaningful agreement on action as a demonstration of the limitations of this way of thinking.

It was argued that this failure had been partly due to a misplaced belief that scientific consensus would be sufficient to generate a commitment to collective action, without taking into account the political impact that scientific ideas would have.

Another example that received considerable attention was the current construction of a synchrotron facility SESAME in Jordan, a project that is already is bringing together researchers in a range of scientific disciplines from various countries in the Middle East (including Israel, Egypt and Palestine, as well as both Greece and Turkey).

The promoters of SESAME hope that – as with the building of CERN 60 years ago, and its operation as a research centre involving, for example, physicists from both Russia and the United States – SESAME will become a symbol of what regional collaboration can achieve. In that sense, it would become what one participant described as a “beacon of hope” for the region.

But others cautioned that, however successful SESAME may turn out to be in purely scientific terms, its potential impact on the Middle East peace process should not be exaggerated.  Political conflicts have deep roots that cannot easily be papered over, however open-minded scientists may be to professional colleagues coming from other political contexts.

Indeed, there was even a warning that in the developing world, high profile scientific projects, particular those with explicit political backing, could end up doing damage by inadvertently favouring one social group over another. Scientists should be wary of having their prestige used in this way; those who did so could come over as patronising, appearing unaware of political realities.

Similarly, those who hold science in esteem as a practice committed to promoting the causes of peace and development were reminded of the need to take into account how advances in science – whether nuclear physics or genetic technology – have also led to new types of weaponry. Nor did science automatically lead to the reduction of global inequalities.

“Science for diplomacy” therefore ended up with a highly mixed review. The consensus seemed to be that science can prepare the ground for diplomatic initiatives – and benefit from diplomatic agreements – but cannot provide the solutions to either.

“On tap but not on top” seems as relevant in international settings as it does in purely national ones. With all the caution that even this formulation still requires.

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

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