Can science diplomacy be implemented from the bottom up as well as from the “top down”, as usually favoured by scientists and policymakers alike?
Yes, according to Melissa Leach, co-director of the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre at the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies.
Leach outlined to the Wilton Park meeting a manifesto published by the STEPS centre last week that proposes a “new politics of innovation” based on a commitment to promoting “direction, distribution and diversity” in science and innovation policy — what the manifesto calls a “3D agenda”.
“We can redefine science as being about ways of knowing – including the knowledge that local people have in their own settings – and redefine diplomacy as being about establishing links between people,” she said.
Using these definitions led to a different – if somewhat unconventional – understanding of science diplomacy, she admitted.
But it was one that promised to lead to a more effective technique for bridging the gap between the world’s rich and its poor, as well as meeting the goals of sustainable development, achieving both in ways that current patterns of growth and innovation are failing to do.
“We want to create networks of networks that fit a world in which politics is about connections between actors forming around common agendas and visions for tackling global challenges,” said Leach.
Not all participants were eager to accept the way that she suggested combining a respect for traditional, indigenous knowledge with the more formal types of knowledge that make up contemporary science.
One participant, for example, called this a “deeply dangerous” idea that diplomats should avoid, on the grounds that it meant acknowledging concepts such as the idea that eating the flesh of an animal could impart some of that animal’s qualities.
But Leach defended her position vigorously and claimed that such criticism was a “serious misreading” of her suggestion.
“We are not talking about folk wisdom that is incompatible with modern science. But we are talking about people’s science which is compatible with Western science, as well as knowledge that can challenge such science,” she said.
She pointed, for example, to areas of which she had direct experience such as forest dynamics and fire management.
But traditional knowledge should also be subject to scrutiny.
“There is scope for hybrids. The need for active deliberation and choice applies as much to traditional knowledge as it does to formal science.”
David Dickson, Director, SciDev.Net