One 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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