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Will science diplomacy survive?

Published on 15 April 2022
Updated on 19 March 2024

Science diplomacy will very likely survive, but in a different form. Diplomats will continue to negotiate scientific collaboration, as they do in other areas of diplomacy such as food, health, and trade. However, science diplomacy will fall short of its idealistic promise of becoming a medium for averting conflicts, establishing peace, and promoting collaboration worldwide. This summary was echoed during a fascinating WebDebate episode organised by Diplo, and inspired me to write the following reflections on the future of science diplomacy. 

Common public good

One of the standard narratives on science diplomacy argues that it might bridge political and ideological divides because scientists speak a common language. This is the language of scientific methods, evidence, and empirical investigation. This hypothesis was often backed by references to scientific cooperation across the Iron Curtain, even during the worst days of the Cold War.

A commonly cited reference of science for peace is the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). More recently, CERN nurtured the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), a research facility based in Jordan. SESAM brought experts from Iran and Israel together for the first time since 1979, when they had no direct diplomatic contact.

This view on science for diplomacy and peace was articulated by Nina Fedoroff, a former science and technology adviser to the US secretary of state. As she explained:

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 stabilising influence that scientific interactions can exert between countries with deeply discordant ideologies and political systems.

Science realpolitik

More recent developments, however, tell a different story. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia, both the West and Russia have halted scientific collaboration. The EU has suspended the involvement of Russian scientists in EU-funded programmes. The Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education has halted the rating of Russian scientists’ work based on peer-reviewed articles, mostly published in Western scientific journals. The International Space Station (ISS), a symbol of international scientific collaboration, may be jeopardised if Russia withdraws from ISS as it has lately threatened. 

Leading US scientific diplomacy practitioners have urged against conducting science diplomacy in the face of conflicts such as the Ukraine war. CERN, one of the symbols of successful science diplomacy, has been trying to keep bridges for science diplomacy open by keeping Russian researchers working at CERN, while suspending Russia’s observer status at the organisation. 

The underlying question is whether this suspension in scientific cooperation is limited to the war in Ukraine and its immediate aftermath, or whether it foreshadows far more important changes that impact the future of science diplomacy.

Over the last few decades, science has become much more integrated into the geopolitical and geoeconomic priorities of nations around the globe. While wars and the military always inspired scientific breakthroughs, the current linkages between the two realms are unprecedented. 

Thus, changes in science diplomacy are likely to be much more profound than the current Ukraine war.  For example, universities and research labs are increasingly subject to strict security clearances, particularly in physics, artificial intelligence (AI), biotech, and other areas of direct and indirect military importance. The USA began restricting the involvement of foreign, in particular Chinese, scientists in projects relevant to security.

In the economic sector, scientific discoveries are quickly transformed into technology and then into commercial goods. It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley and other hotspots of the new economy are concentrated around large universities. Science and technology applied to the economy are the basis of strategic national competitiveness, as is soft power. 

As science nationalism gains momentum, science is mainly viewed as a national asset and less as a global public good. This is a sobering picture. 

Inside science diplomacy

Science diplomacy should be dissected and analysed in three core aspects. 

Science for diplomacy, as the promotion of a more peaceful world through scientific cooperation, will shrink in relevance. Science will be used as a track-two diplomatic channel only when countries see clear advantages in it. Sports served the same purpose 50 years ago when ping-pong diplomacy paved the way for the normalisation of relations between China and the USA. Science can help us deal with the various divisions framing the modern world, but it will never be a diplomatic panacea. CERN, with its project in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, should be supported as a channel of track-two diplomacy.

Science in diplomacy is about using scientific evidence and advice for foreign policy decision-making. In these cases, some breakthroughs have been made such as establishing a shared factual base on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even the IPCC Reports are not solely concerned with scientific evidence. They are also being negotiated. According to the Guardian, negotiators removed references to the fossil fuel industry from the IPCC Report’s “Summary of Policymakers,” a critical section of the Report. It was done in contrast to the scientific evidence presented in the rest of the IPCC Report.

We can expect pushback on scientific facts due to, among other reasons, the frequent misperception that scientific findings provide the full truth on researched issues. Instead of certainty, science provides the most probable explanations of natural phenomena.

The IPCC, for example, frames this by using terms such as ‘unlikely’, ‘likely’, and ‘very likely’ to describe the possible impacts of climate change. But in the current, rather binary framing of global scientific issues, these shades of grey are lost, and it has become easier to slide into discussions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ across various national, cultural, and generational divides. Thus, a lot of effort is needed to make science diplomacy more ‘analogue’ by reflecting on what science can realistically provide in its research on health, the environment, and digital issues, to name a few. 

Diplomacy for science will continue as a way of managing transnational projects such as CERN and the IPCC. In the current geopolitical space, the role of diplomats will be more important than the role of scientists. When scientists use their method of open and transparent communication, they could be framed as ‘useful idiots’ as their contributions may be politicised. As open exchanges may collide with national interests in ever more scientific fields, channels for scientific exchanges are likely to be reduced. 

What should be the next steps?

Reality must be admitted, yet utopia must be preserved.

This should be the tagline for science diplomacy in 2022.  As we face a ‘crunch time’ in global affairs, inclusive and clear debates are needed, as was the case during Diplo’s April WebDebate.

In reality, scientific diplomacy will be reduced to the primary mission of diplomacy, which is to promote and preserve national interests.

Yet, the utopian flames of science and peace should be kept alive. They may enlighten us in the future.

The first step on this 2022 science diplomacy journey, however, is to avoid confusing realpolitik with utopia!


3 replies
  1. Alex Grech
    Alex Grech says:

    “Reality must be admitted, yet utopia must be preserved.” Indeed, in these dangerous times, we need to mix pragmatism with ideology, and in the process update the very notion of what constitutes ‘diplomacy’. The perceived failures of an idealistic interpretation of ‘science diplomacy’ reminds me of similar disappointments with, say, smart contracts or DAOs as some new formulae to address long-standing problems with centralization of power. From education systems to Silicon Valley platforms to the promise of Web 3. Diplo’s importance is in reminding key stakeholders that there are alternative pathways that should be considered – and particularly when the politics of coercion is becoming normalized.

  2. Maricela Muñoz
    Maricela Muñoz says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these thought-provoking reflections. Indeed, SciDiplo must be preserved as a vehicle for peace and for building common understandings. It is a bridge into a more inclusive and prosperous future!

  3. Atef Ahmed
    Atef Ahmed says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this fantastic article. I liked your logic thinking in addressing the global issues with current diplomacy.


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