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

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