Science diplomacy: the case for caution

June 2, 2009

royal-soc-New-frontiers-in-science-diplomacy_DDblog_2One of the frustrations of meetings at which scientists gather to discuss policy-related issues is the speed with which the requirements for evidence-based discussion they would expect in a professional context can go out of the window.

Such has been the issue over the past two days in the meeting jointly organised in London by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Royal Society on the topic “New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy“.

There has been much lively discussion on the value of international collaboration in achieving scientific goals, on the need for researchers to work together on the scientific aspects of global challenges such as climate change and food security, and on the importance of science capacity building in developing countries in order to make this possible.

But there remained little evidence at the end of the meeting on how useful it was to lump all these activities together under the umbrella term of “science diplomacy”.

More significantly, although numerous claims were made during the conference about the broader social and political value of scientific collaboration – for example, in establishing a framework for collaboration in other areas, and in particular reducing tensions between rival countries – little was produced to demonstrate whether this hypothesis is true.

If it is not, then some of the arguments made on behalf of “science diplomacy”, and in particular its value as a mechanism for exercising “soft power” in foreign policy, do not stand up to close scrutiny.

Indeed, a case can be made that where scientific projects have successfully involved substantial international collaboration, such success is often heavily dependent on a prior political commitment to cooperation, rather than a mechanism for securing cooperation where the political will is lacking.

Three messages appeared to emerge from the two days of discussion. Firstly, where the political will to collaborate does exist, a joint scientific project can be a useful expression of that will. Furthermore, it can be an enlightening experience for all those directly involved. But it is seldom a magic wand that can secure broader cooperation where none existed before.

Secondly, “science diplomacy” will only become recognised as a useful activity if it is closely defined to cover specific situations (such as the negotiation of major international scientific projects or collaborative research enterprises). As an umbrella term embracing the many ways in which science interacts with foreign policy, it loses much of its impact, and thus its value.

Finally, when it comes to promoting the use of science in developing countries, a terminology based historically on maximising self-interest – the ultimate goal of the diplomat – and on practices through which the rich have almost invariably ended up exploiting the poor, is likely to be counterproductive.

In other words, the discussion seemed to confirm that “science diplomacy” has a legitimate place in the formulation and implementation of policies for science (just as there is a time and place for exercising “soft power” in international relations).

 But the dangers of going beyond this – including the danger of distorting the integrity of science itself, and even alienating potential partners in collaborative projects, particularly in the developing world – were also clearly exposed.

The take-home message: handle with care.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net

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World Bank turns the spotlight on capacity-building

June 2, 2009
Makerere University in Uganda: back in the World Bank's good books (Credit: Flickr/Aluka Digital Library)

Makerere University in Uganda: back in the World Bank's good books (Credit: Flickr/Aluka Digital Library)

Six years ago, we ran a provocative editorial asking “Does the World Bank really care about science“. This pointed to the glaring gap between the bank’s rhetorical commitment to supporting science in the interests of development, and the lack of substantial evidence that this commitment was reflected in its lending policies.

Most revealing was the continuation of a policy introduced in the 1980s of refusing to grant loans to support the growth of higher education, on the grounds that boosting primary education was the most effective way of tackling poverty.

Since then, the short-sightedness of this approach has been acknowledged. Today the bank is at the forefront of efforts to stimulate a commitment by governments across the developing world in science, technology and innovation.

And following a widely attended forum in Washington in February 2007 on the broad need for such a commitment, it is now turning its attention to a key aspect: capacity-building partnerships.

How to promote these effectively will be the focus of a second forum, to be held provisionally at the bank’s headquarters in Washington DC, in December this year.

“The objective of such partnerships is to create a bridge between those who already have the capacity, and those who need to build their own capacity,” Al Watkins, co-ordinator for science, technology and innovation at the bank, and the leading force behind the 2007 forum, told the Royal Society meeting.

“Country after country has been increasing support for science in the last few years,” said Watkins. “Higher education is booming in these countries, which is a good thing; it is becoming clear that the route out of poverty is through tertiary education, and particularly through science and through engineering.”

“But where is the capacity going to come from to meet this demand? In the universities, for example, there is a large number of staff vacancies and faculty numbers are shrinking. It is a very serious issue.”

Watkins’ goal with the new forum is to stimulate a global discussion on the steps needed to build capacity in science and technology – and, in particular, to do this by establishing active partnerships between institutions in developed and developing countries.

He is keen to demonstrate that capacity building is not limited to increasing investment in research and development. “For many countries, that is not the critical missing ingredient,” he says.

“There is already a wealth of knowledge out there. The developed world already knows how to solve many of the problems facing developing countries. The problem is that that knowledge is not being transferred to such countries, and that they do not have the capacity to adapt it and diffuse it for local use.”

Watkins’ message received a cool welcome from those in the scientific community who argue that investment in research and development should be the top priority. Nor did he mention the phrase “science diplomacy” – the nominal focus of the Royal Society meeting.

But others welcomed the clear signal that, in the modern world, building the capacity to absorb (and therefore use) science effectively can be just as important as building the capacity to produce it. The real challenge is to confront the mechanisms for achieving this – and the barriers that prevent it from happening.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net

Science as a political tool? Don’t even think about it!

June 2, 2009

“Forget about using science to achieve political goals; it doesn’t even work.”

Christopher Whitty

Christopher Whitty (Credit: LSHTM/Anne Koeber)

That was the stark message delivered by Chris Whitty (right), recently appointed head of research at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), to the two-day meeting taking place in London this week on “New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy“.

Whitty, a malaria specialist who was appointed in January (see UK’s DFID appoints research chief) and emphasised that he was speaking in a personal rather than an official capacity, delivered what he described as a “hymn of praise” for the role of science in international development.

He listed some of the “wonderful things” that science was capable of doing to help to mitigate the effects of poverty around the world, while adding that “it has been massively overlooked by those involved in international development for many years”.

But he was scornful of efforts to use scientific and technical assistance to achieve broader political goals such as increasing influence or even contributing to social stability, both of which he included among “less good reasons” to engage in science in developing countries.

“They are less good because they don’t work,” he said.

One idea he criticised was that training scientists was a valuable way of buying influence with a country’s scientific community. The historical record showed that highly trained scientists often left their countries of origin to continue their work overseas.

“Another idea is that science can promote social stability,” said Whitty. “The evidence is the reverse. Science can be a transformative influence. But transformation can lead to turbulence, which itself can lead to conflict.”

Even the idea that science should be promoted because it was an unalloyed good had its problems. “This is clearly not correct. For example, there is some good south-south collaboration on nuclear issues that does not bring joy to the rest of the world.” No names were mentioned; but no names were needed.

The reason for engaging in science in developing countries should have a single, clear, purpose, he suggested: “to transform the lives of the poor”. A simple enough message. But one that placed a large question mark over the desirability of seeking to use science for diplomatic ends, particularly in the context of relationships with the developing world.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net.

Science diplomacy in four dimensions

June 1, 2009
The paro seal: "soft power" Japanese style

The paro seal: "soft power" Japanese style

For those new to – and perhaps baffled by – the term “science diplomacy”, a quick guide was offered to this week’s Royal Society meeting by Jun Yanagi, director of the International Science Cooperation Division of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Yanagi has closer familiarity with the term than most. Last year, the Japanese government passed a new initiative in “science and technology diplomacy” that embraces a range of activities. One of Yanagi’s tasks has been to put this new political commitment into effect.

This has given him experience of what he described as the “four dimensions of science diplomacy”, which he suggested as a useful approach to unpacking the ways that the term can be used.

“The first dimension is the use of science and technology for diplomatic purposes, which means looking on science and technology as diplomatic tools and assets,” Yanagi told the meeting.

As an example, he quoted Japanese collaboration with developing countries in addressing global issues such as climate change, or US efforts – backed by Japan – to find new tasks for nuclear scientists employed by the Soviet Union on weapons development programmes.

“Secondly, there is diplomacy for science and technology,” said Yanagi. Here he quoted the diplomacy needed both to set up bilateral projects and to engage in international “megascience” projects. (Although Yanagi did not mention it, some see this as a response to criticism in Japan of the government’s failure to win a bid to host the international fusion facility, ITER).

“Then there is diplomacy based on science“. Here he pointed to the growing amount of scientific input into making and implementing policy. “Science can increase the credibility and legitimacy of diplomatic policies,” said Yanagi, referring for example to the impact of the IPCC on climate change negotiations (but making no mention of the contested use of scientific arguments to defend Japan’s widely-criticised whaling policies).

Finally he quoted the use of the term to cover science and technology “as a source of soft power”. Here he described how Japan’s national image could benefit from its many scientific and technological achievements, from remote sensing satellites to the ‘paro’, an electronic toy for sick kids described as both ” the world’s most therapeutic robot” and being suitable for “those who love animals but hate pets”.

Japan’s increasing willingness to open up its scientific programmes to foreign partners, to collaborate in the construction of international research facilities (such as ITER) or projects aimed at global problems, and to sponsor genuinely collaborative partnerships with scientific teams in developing countries, have each been welcomed.

But however effective it may have been in generating political support in Tokyo, the value of putting all these together under the label of “science diplomacy” – given the reservations that others still attach to this term – has yet to be fully proven.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net

Treading a wary path

June 1, 2009
Fedoroff: Playing down science as "soft power"?

Fedoroff: Soft pedalling on"soft power"?

If there is an international cheerleader for the current drive to place “science diplomacy” on the international political agenda, it must surely be Nina Fedoroff, a plant geneticist who, in 2007, was appointed as the chief scientific adviser to the US Department of Science.

Speaking at the AAAS/Royal Society meeting on “New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy” taking place this week in London, Fedoroff set out a broad ranging vision of how such diplomacy was vital to building “constructive knowledge-based international partnerships”.

Perhaps taken slightly aback by the vehemence with which the speaker who had preceded her — UK chief scientific adviser John Beddington– had highlighted dangers of mixing science and politics – Fedoroff started by differentiating between “science diplomacy” and “the use of science in diplomacy” [see previous posting].

The first, she suggested, represented legitimate efforts by scientists to put their skills, both individually and collectively, to tackle global problems, a characterisation that coincided with the description that Beddington had previously made.

“Science and scientific diplomacy at every level are enormously important in filling in the knowledge chasm dividing the rich and the poor,” she argued, a sentiment with which few in the room seemed to disagree.

Fedoroff placed less explicit emphasis on the idea that is helping to give the idea of science diplomacy traction in political circles in Washington, namely its value – which even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged — as “soft power” through which the US can pursue its foreign policy objectives.

For example, she described US support for moves to support Russian weapons scientists trained in nuclear and chemical weaponry who sought to move into civilian projects after the fall of communism. But she did not refer to one of the key motivations, namely to prevent such scientists selling their skills to “rogue states”, particularly in the Middle East.

But there was one telling slide in her presentation. Fedoroff was describing the scheme under which research scientists are seconded as fellows to the US State department to learn at first hand the challenges of combining science with foreign policy.

One such fellow is currently working in Iraq helping in a similar fashion to dismantle that country’s military technology capacities and direct its scientists towards peaceful projects. Fedoroff recited the clear pragmatic gains to be made from such an activity. But she did not highlight an additional goal listed at the bottom of the slide, namely “to undermine popular support for terrorism”.

After that it was little surprise to learn that one of the countries on which the United States is currently focussing its efforts at building strong scientific partnerships is Pakistan.

Legitimate enough in its own way. And certainly far from undesirable. But in such situations, the borderline between science and politics is perilously thin.

David Dickson. SciDev.Net

Politicians and scientists make uncomfortable bedfellows

June 1, 2009
John Beddington (NASA/Dominic Hart)

John Beddington (NASA/Dominic Hart)

Any hopes for a quick consensus on either the meaning – or indeed the value – of “science diplomacy” were quickly dispelled by the first speaker on the platform this morning of the meeting that opened today at the Royal Society in London.

Introducing the two-day meeting the president of the society, Sir Martin Rees, had highlighted the long international traditions of the scientific community. He pointed out, for example, how the British and French scientific communities maintained close working relations during the Napoleonic Wars.

But John Beddington, chief scientific adviser to the British government, opened his address by reminding his audience in a deliberately provocative manner of the definition of a diplomat as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”.

Beddington underlined the vital role of scientists in tackling the wide range of problems currently facing the world, from climate change to securing future supplies of food, energy and water.

All this, he emphasised, required greater international collaboration, and he applauded the extent to which “science diplomacy” could be usefully engaged in helping to achieve this. “International scientific and engineering collaboration must be used to meet these challenges and to provide a blueprint for international diplomacy,” he said.

But putting science to political use – another sense in which the terms is often used – “creates a problem for scientists who wish to engage in the diplomatic game”, Beddington added. Particularly given that diplomacy was a field in which “economy with the truth occasionally occurs”.

The danger, he said, lies in attempting to use science for diplomatic purposes “in ways that can distort reality”. Equally dangerous was the use of the uncertainties that occur in science for political aims, particularly when addressing situations, ranging from social values to the regional impacts of climate change, that were themselves uncertain.

Beddington did not provide any easy answers. Indeed he acknowledged that even asking for more collaboration and less competition between scientists created a problem, since “scientists are competitive people”.

His broader questions about the dangers – as well as the values – of close contact between scientists and politicians seem destined to surface frequently over the next two days.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net

Science diplomacy: a timely idea or a fashionable myth?

June 1, 2009

royal-soc-New-frontiers-in-science-diplomacy_DDblog_2At 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

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