Science in diplomacy: “On tap but not on top”

June 28, 2010

Nuclear weapons: a case for science diplomacy

There’s a general consensus in both the scientific and political worlds that the principle of science diplomacy, at least in the somewhat restricted sense of the need to get more and better science into international negotiations, is a desirable objective.

There is less agreement, however, on how far the concept can – or indeed should – be extended to embrace broader goals and objectives, in particular attempts to use science to achieve political or diplomatic goals at the international level.

Science, despite its international characteristics, is no substitute for effective diplomacy. Any more than diplomatic initiatives necessarily lead to good science.

These seem to have been the broad conclusions to emerge from a three-day meeting at Wilton Park in Sussex, UK, organised by the British Foreign Office and the Royal Society, and attended by scientists, government officials and politicians from 17 countries around the world.

The definition of science diplomacy varied widely among participants. Some saw it as a subcategory of “public diplomacy”, or what US diplomats have recently been promoting as “soft power” (“the carrot rather than the stick approach”, as a participant described it).

Others preferred to see it as a core element of the broader concept of “innovation diplomacy”, covering the politics of engagement in the familiar fields of international scientific exchange and technology transfer, but raising these to a higher level as a diplomatic objective.

Whatever definition is used, three particular aspects of the debate became the focus of attention during the Wilton Park meeting: how science can inform the diplomatic process; how diplomacy can assist science in achieving its objectives; and, finally, how science can provide a channel for quasi-diplomatic exchanges by forming an apparently neutral bridge between countries.

There was little disagreement on the first of these. Indeed for many, given the increasing number of international issues with a scientific dimension that politicians have to deal with, this is essentially what the core of science diplomacy should be about.

Chris Whitty, for example, chief scientist at the UK’s Department for International Development, described how knowledge about the threat raised by the spread of the highly damaging plant disease stem rust had been an important input by researchers into discussions by politicians and diplomats over strategies for persuading Afghan farmers to shift from the production of opium to wheat.

Others pointed out that the scientific community had played a major role in drawing attention to issues such as the links between chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere and the growth of the ozone hole, or between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Each has made essential contributions to policy decisions.

Acknowledging this role for science has some important implications. No-one dissented when Rohinton Medhora, from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, complained of the lack of adequate scientific expertise in the embassies of many countries of the developed and developing world alike.

Nor – perhaps predictably – was there any major disagreement that diplomatic initiatives can both help and occasionally hinder the process of science. On the positive side, such diplomacy can play a significant role in facilitating science exchange and the launch of international science projects, both essential for the development of modern science.

Europe’s framework programme of research programmes was quoted as a successful advantage of the first of these. Examples of the second range from the establishment of the European Organisation of Nuclear Research (usually known as CERN) in Switzerland after the Second World War, to current efforts to build a large new nuclear fusion facility (ITER).

Less positively, increasing restrictions on entry to certain countries, and in particular the United States after the 9/11 attacks in New York and elsewhere, have significantly impeded scientific exchange programmes. Here the challenge for diplomats was seen as helping to find ways to ease the burdens of such restrictions.

The broadest gaps in understanding the potential of scientific diplomacy lay in the third category, namely the use of science as a channel of international diplomacy, either as a way of helping to forge consensus on contentious issues, or as a catalyst for peace in situations of conflict.

On the first of these, some pointed to recent climate change negotiations, and in particular the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as a good example, of the way that the scientific community can provide a strong rationale for joint international action.

But others referred to the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit last December to come up with a meaningful agreement on action as a demonstration of the limitations of this way of thinking.

It was argued that this failure had been partly due to a misplaced belief that scientific consensus would be sufficient to generate a commitment to collective action, without taking into account the political impact that scientific ideas would have.

Another example that received considerable attention was the current construction of a synchrotron facility SESAME in Jordan, a project that is already is bringing together researchers in a range of scientific disciplines from various countries in the Middle East (including Israel, Egypt and Palestine, as well as both Greece and Turkey).

The promoters of SESAME hope that – as with the building of CERN 60 years ago, and its operation as a research centre involving, for example, physicists from both Russia and the United States – SESAME will become a symbol of what regional collaboration can achieve. In that sense, it would become what one participant described as a “beacon of hope” for the region.

But others cautioned that, however successful SESAME may turn out to be in purely scientific terms, its potential impact on the Middle East peace process should not be exaggerated.  Political conflicts have deep roots that cannot easily be papered over, however open-minded scientists may be to professional colleagues coming from other political contexts.

Indeed, there was even a warning that in the developing world, high profile scientific projects, particular those with explicit political backing, could end up doing damage by inadvertently favouring one social group over another. Scientists should be wary of having their prestige used in this way; those who did so could come over as patronising, appearing unaware of political realities.

Similarly, those who hold science in esteem as a practice committed to promoting the causes of peace and development were reminded of the need to take into account how advances in science – whether nuclear physics or genetic technology – have also led to new types of weaponry. Nor did science automatically lead to the reduction of global inequalities.

“Science for diplomacy” therefore ended up with a highly mixed review. The consensus seemed to be that science can prepare the ground for diplomatic initiatives – and benefit from diplomatic agreements – but cannot provide the solutions to either.

“On tap but not on top” seems as relevant in international settings as it does in purely national ones. With all the caution that even this formulation still requires.

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

Innovation diplomacy: an alternative concept

June 27, 2010

A biofuel plant in Brazil

Is science diplomacy a self-contained field of diplomatic activity or should it be seen as a sub-set of a broader field of international activity that might be described as “innovation diplomacy”?

This was the issue raised by Ademar Seabra da Cruz, head of science and technology in the ministry of foreign affairs of Brazil, speaking on the final day of the Wilton Park meeting on science diplomacy.

He pointed out how Brazil’s surging capacity in science and technology has provided a new channel for establishing relations with other countries, particularly emerging economies such as China and India, and those in other parts of the developing world.

“Science and innovation together have a role that can be used to promote global equality and sustainable development,” Seabra da Cruz said.

“The big challenge to us and other emerging economies is to find ways of using scientific knowledge to enhance our competitiveness and create a new international division of labour. Without linking scientific knowledge to innovation policy, it is impossible to have sustainable development.”

As an example of innovation diplomacy in action, he pointed to how technical knowledge can be exchanged between countries about the best ways of using cheap, sustainable sources of energy – as Brazil is doing with its experience in biofuels — helping to improve relations between the providers of such knowledge and those that receive it.

“This is an example of where we can exchange information about best social and innovation practices – which are all likely to involve science to a greater or lesser degree – and also provide an immediate and relatively easy way of making innovation work for diplomacy.”

He admitted that, as with science diplomacy, innovation diplomacy presents a number of challenges. Diplomats need to be well informed on innovation-related issues, embassies need to develop “observatories ” that monitor the innovation landscape of the countries in which they are based, and ways need to be found to engage a country’s scientific and technological diaspora.

But, if all this can be achieved, “like science diplomacy, innovation diplomacy is a way of broadening the scope and functions of traditional diplomacy”.

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

Can science diplomacy help strengthen the Muslim world?

June 26, 2010

Princess Sumaya of Jordan: "The Muslim world must learn to cooperate better"

A key element of the new interest in science diplomacy has been the effort, particularly by the US administration, to improve relations with the countries of the Middle East and the Muslim world.

These efforts to use scientific agreements as a central strategy in so-called “soft diplomacy” were highlighted in a speech delivered in Cairo last year by newly elected President Barack Obama who promised a new era of cooperation with the region.

The optimism of that speech has since faded, partly because follow-up is still awaited. But many remain sympathetic to the idea that building a strong scientific and technological base in the region would not only increase the economic strength of Muslim countries, but also have broader cultural and political implications.

One of the strongest protagonists of this view is Pakistani-born Princess Sumaya of Jordan, who plays an highly active role as president of the country’s Royal Scientific Society based in Amman.

In an address to the Wilton Park meeting on science diplomacy that was both thoughtful and passionate, she presented a vision of how promoting science and technology — a task that she admitted benefitted from external support — could bring both peace and prosperity to the region.

Princess Sumaya used her speech to make vigorous criticism of the way, too often in the Muslim world, scientific leaders had a tendency to focus their efforts on building and controlling their own power bases, rather than seeing their role as part of a global scientific community.

“We Arabs have a demon within us who calls for the biggest and the brightest, a demon that appeals to us to build an edifice that will put the neighbours in the shade,” she said. “Unfortunately, we do little to work together.”

Multilateralism was not a great strength in the Arab world; indeed it was hardly a reality. But it was important for countries in the region to learn to collaborate on science and technology, just as European countries had done to boost their technological innovation.

“Our resource-rich countries must work with talent-rich, but resource-poor, economies for the benefit of all,” Princess Sumaya said. “Spreading opportunities across the Arab world will stem our debilitating brain-drain and help to create a sustainable and productive environment for all our populations.”

A similar plea had come on the previous day from Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), who described how the members of his organisation were committed to promoting science and technology to enhance the well-being of the Muslim world.

Keen to challenge the idea that the transfer of scientific knowledge was primarily a West-to-East affair, he pointed out that, in the seventeenth century, the English scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon had acknowledged that many key inventions – such as printing, gunpowder and the compass – had come from the Muslim world.

Ihsanoglu, a historian of science by profession, complained that Islamic contributions to science and knowledge were in danger of being overlooked as a result of campaigns of “Islamophobia” that sought to demonise the principles and values of Islamic culture.

At the same time he reminded participants that, although science diplomacy had proved to be useful in forging partnerships in fields such as education and agriculture, they should not forget that its ultimate aim – like that of more conventional forms of diplomacy – was to further a country’s interests and wider political goals.

Princess Sumaya issued a similar warning in slightly more colourful terms. “Soft power is a desirable tool for diplomacy, considering the other options available to all sides, but achieving one’s goals through co-option and attraction is only truly sustainable if we all want similar, sustainable outcomes.

“The design and exercise of soft power by the West is, to a large extent, predetermined by cultural values, political institutions and even the demands of the electoral cycle,” she stressed. “If clear, universal goals are not agreed upon, then soft power too can seem antagonistic, to be dismissed by opposing ideologues as the velvet glove of international relations.”

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

Alberts: “Let’s learn more from mistakes”

June 26, 2010

Bruce Alberts: US science envoy

When both countries and aid agencies are asked to talk about the “science for development” projects that they have supported, they frequently tend to focus on those that have been successful.

Bruce Alberts, editor of Science magazine and a former president of the US National Academy of Sciences, wants to change this. He argues that there is often as much to learn from projects that have failed as from those that have succeeded.

“Let’s make a science out of sustainable development,” he told the second day of the science diplomacy meeting at Wilton House in Sussex, UK. “We must objectively learn from experiments in this area, and build up an evidence-based science of what works where – and why.”

Alberts spent much of his time at the academy promoting the need for more science in developing countries. He is now a special envoy to the US administration on scientific issues, putting him at the forefront of implementing the country’s science diplomacy strategy.

Alberts has recently been closely engaged, for example, in negotiating a set of agreements with the government of Indonesia on various aspects of scientific cooperation with the United States.

“Vision is important but we also need effective strategies,” he said.

“Nearly all projects [in applying science to development] claim to be successes, which means that the lessons learned from failure are thereby lost.”

It was understandable that governments and development agencies should be keen to demonstrate a good track record. But the result was that “we keep on making the same mistake over and over.”

Alberts admitted that some organisations, such as the World Bank, do evaluate projects that have failed. “But the reports disappear down a black hole and people never see them. It is a great waste.”

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

A call for “bottom up” diplomacy

June 25, 2010

Traditional medicine: a space in the diplomacy debate?

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

Science diplomacy: easier said than done

June 24, 2010

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

Science diplomacy and international challenges: setting the scene

June 21, 2010

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.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

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