Science diplomacy: easier said than done

The International Space Station: science diplomacy in action

Using science as a vehicle for international diplomacy has many clear attractions. Such is the case, for example, when it can be used to forge common approaches to international problems (such as climate change), or appears to offer a way around divisive political disagreements.

But, as rapidly become clear in the opening session of the three-day meeting on science diplomacy being held at Wilton Park in Sussex, UK, putting the principle of such diplomacy into action presents many practical problems, some of which SciDev.Net aired last week (see Science diplomacy must be more ambitious).

As several participants pointed out, this is particularly the case at a time when science budgets are under pressure, and scientists are being asked to justify their support from the public purse in terms of the practical contributions they make to national – rather than international – well-being.

The dilemma was highlighted by the very first speaker at the meeting, Peter Fletcher, chair of panel that seeks to co-ordinate the international activities of Britain’s research councils.

Fletcher outlined the many ways in which science can be effectively used as a diplomatic tool. He pointed out, for example, that scientific cooperation offered countries such as Britain an opportunity to establish good relations with the Muslim world in just the same way that it had helped them build bridges with China in the 1990s.

“Science is a way of building relationships, sometimes even before politicians have agreed to talk.” Fletcher said. “Researchers are used to working across national boundaries. They understand people who are thinking about the same things as they are, and are used to working together in ways in which other people are not.”

But he also pointed out that, with the UK having just announced a 25% reduction in its science budget, governments were increasingly requiring scientists to demonstrate the value of their work for those who paid for it. “How much are we prepared to commit to solving global challenges for mutual benefit [in this context]?” he asked.

Other challenges were highlighted by Vaughan Turekian, director of the Center for Science Diplomacy, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Washington DC

Turekian pointed out that part of the attraction of using science for diplomatic purposes was its apolitical nature. In addition, the United States, for example, was well placed to exploit the fact that its science was held in much higher regard around the world that many of its other activities.

He quoted a recent visit to Syria by a US scientific delegation that had met with President Assad – an ophthalmologist – as an example of how science diplomacy could help promote political engagement in situations where official relations were limited.

“Science cooperation has provided a wonderful way to have a dialogue on issues of mutual interest,” Turekian said.

But he also pointed to some of the barriers that prevent science diplomacy from operating effectively, such as asymmetries in scientific capabilities, economic or security concerns over providing access to certain types of key technologies, and a general lack of funding.

In the discussion that followed, it became clear that these barriers are likely to become an important focus of attention over the next two days.

Several participants, for example, pointed to the obstacles to international scientific exchange presented by the increasing restrictions on entrance visas being placed by countries such as the United States.

“It becomes so difficult for someone to get into the US that once they are there, they cannot afford to go home, even for a short visit, because they have no idea whether they will be able to get back in,” was one typical comment.

Others pointed to the broader issue of an apparent conflict between the supposed goal of science to promote international interests, and the goal of diplomacy, namely  to advance the national interests of the country that the diplomat is serving.

There has been much talk of the need to find a way of achieving  a balance between these two tendencies. Reaching agreement on where that balance should lie is a major challenge. Achieving that balance will be even harder. Already it is clear from this meeting that science diplomacy is easier said than done.

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

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