Over the past 60 years, “science diplomacy” – a concept that encompasses the various interactions between science and foreign affairs – has developed as an increasingly important component of international diplomatic activity.
In some instances, the concept is used to describe efforts to organise large-scale scientific experiments requiring support from several countries, such as those in astronomy or high-energy physics.
A second use covers the engagement of scientists in diplomatic negotiations with high scientific or technical content. Typical issue here is the need to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or to combat global warming and the social impacts of climate change.
Thirdly, the “scientific diplomacy” is increasingly used to describe how scientific collaboration between countries can be used as a lever to achieve diplomatic goals without resorting to more aggressive tactics, such as trade embargoes or even military intervention.
It is this last sense that “science diplomacy” has emerged prominently on the agenda in the past two years as a component of so-called “soft diplomacy” being developed by the administration of US President Barack Obama to secure its political goals, particularly in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.
This week, the British Foreign Office is hosting a three-day meeting at its Wilton Park conference centre to test the extent to which these efforts resonate with, and are supported by, other countries, particularly in Europe and in the developing world.
Held under the title “Science Diplomacy: Applying Science and Innovation to International Challenges”, the meeting has been organised in partnership with Britain’s Royal Society, and is intended to address questions such as:
- How can science diplomacy be used effectively as a tool of soft power in international policy-making?
- What mechanisms are needed to strengthen links between the science and foreign policy communities?
- How can science diplomacy help foster positive re-engagement with the Islamic World?
- And how can tensions between scientific independence on the one hand, and the needs of the state on the other, be balanced?
I’ll be blogging regularly from the conference over the three days, starting on the evening of Thursday. This will not be an attempt to provide a complete summary of the meeting. Rather I’ll be highlighting what seem to be the most significant – or perhaps controversial – contributions to the debate, attempting to give an idea of the flavour of the discussions and a brief summary of any outcomes.