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Science diplomacy in practice: Interview with Amb. Bhaskar Balakrishnan

Published on 09 December 2022
Updated on 04 April 2024
Diplo Wisdom Circle

What does science diplomacy look like in practice? In particular, how do diplomats from the Global South engage in the practice of science diplomacy? What are the avenues in which science diplomacy contributes to both national foreign policy and global cooperation?

In order to address some of these questions, Diplo spoke to Amb. Bhaskar Balakrishnan on the topic of science diplomacy in the context of India and the Global South.

Dr Balakrishnan has been an Indian diplomat for 33 years and has served as ambassador of India to Greece and Cuba. He has worked in several countries in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and for over ten years with various UN organisations in Geneva and Vienna. 

Science diplomacy in india and the global south - Interview Amb. Bhaskar Balakrishnan

A theoretical physicist himself, as a diplomat, Balakrishnan worked and collaborated on projects regarding nuclear disarmament, chemical weapons, marine pollution, AIDS, tropical diseases, human reproduction, vaccine development, biotech products, setting up international science centres, and much more. After he finished his career as a diplomat, he joined the Research and Information System (RIS) for Developing Countries in 2018 where he is still working on their programme which involves the training of diplomats and scientists in science diplomacy, as well as in the area of diaspora engagement. 

Dr Balakrishnan is the author of the book Technology and International Relations: Challenges for the 21st Century.

The interview, conducted by Dr Katharina Höne (Director of Research, Diplo), was originally created in the context of Diplo’s Science Diplomacy online course, organised in cooperation with the Geneva Science-Policy Interface (GSPI) and the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA). 

Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Science diplomacy of India and the science and technology policy of India

KH: How would you describe the science diplomacy of India and the science and technology policy of India?

BB: India is a developing country, and has many of the features of a developing country, but it’s also a large country, and it’s got certain areas where it’s fairly advanced. It’s an interesting country in terms of how its science diplomacy has evolved. 

The most important thing for Indian science diplomacy is the focus on:

  • capacity building
  • acquisition of new technologies, emerging technologies, and applications for development
  • engagement with the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) diaspora
  • use of science, technology, and innovation (STI) for the sustainable development goals (SDGs)
  • technology facilitation 

If we look at the Indian ecosystem, we are only spending 0.7% of the GDP on research and development (R&D), which is a low figure; the number of researchers per million is very low, and the number of scientific institutions and infrastructure is not sufficient. On the other hand, if you look at human resources, we do have a large number of young people who have STEM degrees. 

The consequence of this is that when you have a large output of trained people, and you don’t have a big enough or strong enough ecosystem to absorb them, you find that many of them go to the USA or Europe and build their careers there, and that’s what happened in India over the years. 

Therefore, our priority (and all our policies are geared to that) is to: 

  • increase our national ecosystem capacity
  • increase the funding for research and development
  • increase the number of researchers per million who are based and working in India
  • increase the institutional infrastructure 

Coming to the specifics of science diplomacy, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology is the main player in this field, and they are the ones who enter into scientific collaboration with other countries, multilateral as well as bilateral. But we have eight other science departments (atomic energy, space, earth sciences, health sector, agricultural research, etc.), all of which are spending money on R&D. That’s from the government’s side. In addition, we have state governments. Many of India’s state governments also have science and technology establishments that are trying to promote work in this field. As for businesses and industry, some large companies also spend on R&D. We also have a large number of higher education institutions. Specifically, I would mention the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), which have become well-known in the world for producing high-quality graduates. So this is a very complex system.

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

India’s network of science attachés abroad is very weak. We have only four science attachés in different countries, unlike some of the European countries or the USA. And in some capitals, we have representatives of other science departments, but they have a very narrow mandate. For example, the Atomic Energy Department only looks at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, or the Department of Space, they only look at work in space with France, etc. That’s not the typical science attaché’s role. Therefore, a lot of the work of scientific cooperation has to be done by Indian diplomats. Fortunately, many of our diplomats have a STEM background which gives us a certain advantage. 

Given the whole complex nature of the science departments, eight or nine of them, and ministries, all of them engage internationally with various partners, signing agreements, entering into activities and so on. Coordinating all of this is a challenge. For example, the Ministry of Science and Technology is working with Taiwan, but there are many other ministries which are working with the People’s Republic of China. The coordination is a challenge for us, but also affords an opportunity for synergy and getting the best out of it. 

There are many challenges for Indian science diplomacy, but there are many more opportunities for the development and growth of our science diplomacy, and that’s what makes it very exciting work. We have some features of the USA, and we have some features of other developing countries. It’s a mixed, complicated picture.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)

Practice of science diplomacy in the Global South

KH: Can we try to generalise the key elements, key concerns, and perspectives when it comes to the practice of science diplomacy in the Global South?  

BB: The whole formal structure of science diplomacy has emerged since 2010, basically pioneered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the UK’s Royal Society

Let’s look at it from the lens of the AAAS and Royal Society framework which has three pillars of science diplomacy

Diplomacy for science

The first is diplomacy for science in which you use diplomacy for scientific cooperation. The focus there was on large-scale science projects, international collaboration, and how to go about it. 

International cooperation

In the Global South, diplomacy for science is somewhat different. We are looking at using diplomacy for building science, technology and innovation (STI) capacity, national capacity, national ecosystem, institutions, etc. Diplomacy that is oriented for science should target how to strengthen the national ecosystem. 

International collaboration is also important, and how to engage with large science projects because that is one way of accessing frontier research with a minimum amount of resources by joining and partnering with other countries. We have had a very good experience working with CERN, in which our businesses and industries supply certain components to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. CERN pays the money into an account which is used to support our researchers. It’s a win-win situation for both. 

India became an Associate Member of CERN

In 2017, India became an associate member of CERN. Indian Amb. Amandeep Singh Gill and CERN Director General Fabiola Gianotti. (CERN)

This kind of work, the orientation of diplomacy to engage with large science projects, is important for the Global South in terms of accessing top facilities and gaining access to frontier knowledge. A lot of these projects will come up in the future because the way science is going, individual countries may not be able to afford large projects, whether it’s in space, or astronomy, or radio astronomy, or even in biotechnology. 

STI for development

Another important area where diplomacy for science has to be used is how to use STI for development. How do we use science, technology, and innovation and adapt them for our development needs. This was not there in the AAAS and the Royal Society’s framework because they’re already well-developed countries. 

Engaging the STEM diaspora

The next item on this pillar is the STEM diaspora and engaging them into the national STI ecosystem and how to retain STI talent. In other words, we use our diplomatic engagement to contact the STEM diaspora in advanced countries, talk to them about opportunities for collaboration and research, or start-ups in our country, and also take their inputs as to what kind of policy changes they want in order to make the engagement with India better. This is an important thing. This was not there in the case with the AAAS and the Royal Society framework. But I know that many European countries, including Greece, where I’ve served,  have a similar problem. They have a very talented STEM diaspora. This business of diaspora engagement is becoming very important as we see the trend towards an increasing mobility of researchers across the globe. 

Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology India

Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, India

Science in diplomacy 

The second pillar is science in diplomacy. For the Global South, it’s very important that the delegations are well prepared for engaging in international science and technology discussions. It’s very important that scientists and diplomats work together and understand what is being discussed in international science and technology discussions (whether it’s on cybersecurity or outer space), and be very clear about what their objectives should be, work with other countries, other partners, and try to achieve the best results in international negotiations. 

Science for diplomacy

The third pillar is science for diplomacy. That is the idea of using science to bring countries together, especially when there are conflict situations. This is a relatively less explored area in the Global South, but it has a rich potential. 

One can look at the SESAME project in Jordan, where countries that are otherwise very sharply divided, are working together on this synchrotron light source. This includes countries like Israel and Iran, and Pakistan, that have completely different approaches to the problems of the Middle East, yet they work together. 

SESAME International Research Centre, Jordan

SESAME International Research Centre, Jordan

South–South cooperation

This science for diplomacy aspect is not that well explored in the Global South, but there are opportunities in South Asia. For example, one can look at the cooperation among South Asian countries for tackling problems like environment, air pollution, access to energy, renewable energy, health, and pandemic cooperation, because we have large populations and we have potential outbreaks. So, science for diplomacy has a good potential for growth as far as the Global South is concerned

South–North cooperation

As for South–North issues and North–North issues, I do not know. I think right now, in the North, there is a big problem because of the Ukraine conflict. How do we minimise the breakdown of scientific cooperation as a result of this? This is a big challenge for the North in science diplomacy. But for the South, science for diplomacy means getting more and more South–South cooperation and triangular cooperation going. I think we have a fairly different perspective, although we have some things in common.  

Advice for science diplomacy practitioners

KH: I’m glad you brought up the AAAS and the Royal Society framework from the perspective of the Global South. I think the questioning of this framework from a Global South perspective is quite crucial. 

One last question. What is your advice for science diplomacy practitioners, keeping in mind that they may be scientists, have a strong scientific background, be diplomats, or non-state actors.

BB: You need the skills from both diplomats and scientists to be brought together in science diplomacy. 

To my mind, science diplomacy, in its broader definition, goes beyond the AAAS and Royal Society framework. It includes the full integration of science, technology, and innovation into foreign policy and diplomacy, and how we integrate the two sides depends on each country. 

What should diplomats do? 

We know that diplomats, including many Indian diplomats, come from social sciences backgrounds. We do have some 40% to 50% who come from engineering and science backgrounds. 

Diplomats, in general, need to become familiar with major STI developments and what their implications are. They need to look at the broad picture of STI since every major emerging technology or major breakthrough in this field always has implications for societies and for the world. They need to keep track of some of these broad and major upheavals in science and technology. 

On the micro level, when they are in the field and on assignment in a country, they should look at how to report back home on the science and technology sector in those countries. This is very important when you’re working in an advanced country like the USA or the EU, but it also could be important when working in the Global South. Reporting and analysing the science technology innovation sector is a job that should be done, and that always adds value to the diplomats’ working back home. 

And then of course, engaging with science and technology institutions and stakeholders in the host country, like visiting research institutions, research centres, labs, talking to the people in science ministries. A lot of useful information and opportunities come up for collaboration. What I found personally enriching was to visit research centres, talk to scientists and researchers, and then send the information back home to their potential partners

Nobody, however, actually tells you that this is what you should do in the field. For example, if you’re doing trade diplomacy or economic diplomacy, the International Trade Centre Geneva publishes a book called the Manual of Instructions for Commercial Representatives, which is a sort of bible for what you should do for trade promotion or business promotion. 

A similar manual for science diplomats does not formally exist. Of course, every country has its own. I have always thought that it’s time that we develop an operating manual for science diplomats, so that at least they know these are the kinds of things they can do and how to do it when they are in the field. 

What should scientists do?

Scientists, on the other hand, need to know the basics of international cooperation mechanisms. For example:

  • How do you work with an institution abroad? 
  • What is the framework available within your country?
  • Are there bilateral agreements? 
  • How do you exploit the bilateral agreements and the resources and funding which are available? 

They should also learn how to interact and communicate better with the foreign policy community and analyse the international repercussions of major science technology developments. 

For example, if they are in the field of biotechnology, and something new comes up in the field of reproduction research or gene therapy, they should be able to communicate the substance of what is happening to a wider audience, and also try to bring out what are the impacts of this on countries in the world? Is it a game changer? Will there be new issues to discuss? They should analyse the international repercussions of major STI developments, and identify opportunities and challenges

They should also engage with major international STI cooperation activities. For example, many of our scientists working in institutions in India are not really familiar with the Horizon Europe funding programme and what are the opportunities available there. Although Horizon Europe is fairly complicated, and not easy to get a project done, it has many advantages. 

These are some of the things which scientists and diplomats need to do. It will add value to their own careers, and it will add value to their contribution to the country which they are serving.

KH: This was really valuable advice, and I also like how you distinguish between diplomatic practitioners and scientists. Thank you, Amb. Balakrishnan, it was an absolute pleasure. 

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