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Policy & Practice

The importance of science diplomacy during difficult times

If the vaunted features of science that are used rhetorically to promote and justify its status as an aid to international affairs are truly valued, it would be precisely in the most trying circumstances that science diplomacy should remain a viable alternative.

BY CRESO SÁ | MAR 29 2022

Since the mid-2000s, the concept of science diplomacy has featured in the lexicon of academics and policy nerds interested in the interplay between science and international affairs. Originating from and promoted by institutions in traditional Western powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, the idea that science has a special role to play in multilateral global engagement is now taken for granted, and is part of the rationale for key science advisory roles in the upper echelons of national governments. While the concept is somewhat elastic, it basically entails the ways in which (1) international relations facilitate scientific co-operation, (2) scientific input is provided in issues related to foreign policy, and (3) scientific engagement plays a soft power role in nurturing international relations.

It is this last role that comes to the forefront at times of major conflict. But the faith posited on science as a conduit for rational and constructive engagement among countries at opposite ends of political, military, or ideological disputes has not fared fell since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

If any situation provided a test-ground for the potential usefulness of science diplomacy during a major crisis, this would certainly be it. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the U.K.’s Royal Society commonly feature stories of science’s soft power role during the Cold War in their publications on science diplomacy. Indeed, the distinguished American molecular biologist Nina Fedoroff, a former president of AAAS and former science and technology adviser to the U.S. secretary of state, explained her engagement in science diplomacy as follows:

My position is not a political one: I have served current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and I will serve Secretary-designate Hillary Clinton upon her assumption of office this month. I accepted the position because my involvement in scientific interactions between US scientists and scientists in the former Soviet Union through the 1990s convinced me of the profound stabilizing influence that scientific interactions can exert between countries with deeply discordant ideologies and political systems.

Even three decades after the Cold War, this remains a common view. The idealized attributes of science as an open and collaborative undertaking practised across the globe by expert communities who share common principles and objectives underpins arguments for science diplomacy. Daryl Copeland, a Canadian expert on the topic, argues that science “offers a chance to turn adversity into opportunity by fostering solidarity, cooperation, and action in concert among all peoples and nations,” and that science diplomacy “serves as a critical medium of international political communication when regular diplomatic channels are strained, blocked, or nonexistent.” This role of science as an instrument of national soft power in bilateral and multilateral affairs is enshrined in the activities of government office holders. For instance, “diplomacy through science” is one of four major areas of Canada’s chief science advisor mandate, which are reported on annually.

What we have seen since the invasion of Ukraine and the recently imposed international sanctions against Russia has been the exact opposite of a diplomatic engagement through science. Widespread boycotts to Russian universities and research institutions from international scientific organizations, research sponsors, university associations, and academic publishers quickly followed the international economic sanctions applied to Russia. In justifying these positions, the organizations involved have drawn on the more general argument to condemn and isolate Russia economically, culturally, and politically due to the heinous violence in Ukraine. Veteran U.S. experts have defended these moves on the grounds that science should not “get a pass” from the broader sanctions and that scientific engagement should focus on helping Ukraine. Further, they argue that absolutely no co-operation should take place with Russian scientists until the war is over.

Two days into the war, a project that symbolizes international scientific co-operation came into the limelight through bellicose rhetoric. Lacking in subtlety, the head of the Russian Space Agency responded to international sanctions with a threat to let the International Space Station crash into the U.S. or Europe.

This raises the broader question regarding the actual potential and possibility of “science for diplomacy,” and the unique role of the scientific community as a purveyor of rational discourse and mutual understanding. If the vaunted features of science that are used rhetorically to promote and justify its status as an aid to international affairs are truly valued, it would be precisely in the most trying circumstances that science diplomacy should remain a viable alternative.

Instead, over the past few weeks we have witnessed scientific leaders and policy officials actually argue the opposite to defend academic boycotts and scientific sanctions. One seasoned U.S. expert consulted on the topic asks, “Why should we treat scientific exchanges any differently than Champions League soccer matches, ballet performances, financial transactions, and investment projects?”

That sounds like a reasonable ponderation to any citizen of the world who’s watching the atrocity of war and the inordinate suffering of Ukrainians. However, coming from experts in and proponents of science diplomacy, that is arguably somewhat inconsistent with much ink spilled and portentous lectures given annually by science advisers and the like on the uniqueness of their trade. If science engagement is no different than soccer, the case for science diplomacy’s potential to build bridges when other means of communication have ceased to function has just become far less persuasive.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is the chair of the department of leadership, higher, and adult education as well as a distinguished professor of science policy, higher education, and innovation at the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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  1. Sarah Elaine Eaton / March 30, 2022 at 20:14

    This was an excellent read. Thank you for sharing your wisdom on this topic.