At the height of the Cold War, the scientific community became an important channel of communication between East and West on issues such as nuclear weapons control. The idea was simple. The internationalism — and apparent political neutrality — of science provided a useful cover for messages to be passed between leaders of both sides that would have been impossible to convey by more conventional means.
Does science have a similar role in helping to meet the political challenges of today? The new US administration of President Barack Obama thinks it does. Enhanced scientific relations lie at the heart of its strategy of using “soft power” to rebuild political bridges with countries across the world, particularly in the Middle East.
How far this commitment is shared by other countries will be debated over the next two days at a meeting in London jointly organised by the Royal Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science. Under the title “New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy“, the meeting is bringing together eminent speakers from across the developed and developing world to look in detail at the role of science in foreign policy.
Of course, there is much more to the issue than merely repolishing a tarnished international image (understandably the top US priority, following two successful terms of an isolationist administration which seemed to care little about this image). Other countries care more, for example, about ways in which science can help build a global consensus about the need to tackle problems such as climate change.
And lurking in the background is the fact even soft power is still power. If the key purpose of a country’s foreign policy is to extend its influence over the policy of others, there is certainly a debate to be had over the extent to which science should tie itself to this strategy (even accepting the clear economic self-interest in doing so).
The issue is particular acute when it comes to offering science as a form of aid to the developing world. Countries in former European colonies in particular remain highly suspicious of political leverage arriving in their aid packages – even those designed to boost their scientific capacities.
So there will be plenty to talk about over the next two days. Watch this space for more details.
David Dickson, SciDev.Net