Yellow banner with pen and letters

Author: Ryan Haupt

On dealing with uncertainty


What is Science Diplomacy? This was the fundamental question I was hoping to answer, and then help answer for others, by volunteering to be part of this initiative. I’ve got some bad news because I still don’t have an answer, but this bad news is actually a good thing! In teaching complex subjects I feel that it is only natural that the teacher learns from reviewing and presenting the material and expands their understanding from there based on discussions and feedback from their students. In that sense this experience totally delivered!

Note: This article is a part of the publication ‘Science diplomacy capacity development: Reflections on Diplo’s 2021 course and the road ahead’

What is Science Diplomacy? This was the fundamental question I was hoping to answer, and then help answer for others, by volunteering to be part of this initiative. I’ve got some bad news because I still don’t have an answer, but this bad news is actually a good thing! In teaching complex subjects I feel that it is only natural that the teacher learns from reviewing and presenting the material and expands their understanding from there based on discussions and feedback from their students. In that sense this experience totally delivered! 

Is Science Diplomacy how we apply diplomatic relationships to international scientific collaborations? Is it how scientific knowledge can be applied to international decision making? Is it how scientists themselves can serve as diplomatic actors outside the traditional diplomatic framework? Is it a context-dependent bit of all three? Something else entirely? 

I think many folks would be frustrated by the lack of clarity here but if there is one major overlap between the scientific mindset and the diplomatic mindset, I think it has to be that both worldviews are trained to be comfortable with uncertainty and with context-dependent definitions of sensitive topics. How cool is that?! 

I’m truly not being sarcastic here, as a scientist with some policy experience, it shouldn’t be surprising to me that in learning more about a given topic I also learn that the topic itself is far more complex than I may have realized before digging deeper (see the Dunning-Kruger effect for why this pretty much always happens when learning about a new topic and also why it is more or less impossible to avoid). 

So, I came into this process hoping for answers, hoping to apply my time doing domestic science policy work to an international framework, and left with a new appreciation of the specific challenges faced by diplomats especially as they relate to issues of science and international collaboration. If only there was a species-level threat to our very existence that could serve as an ultimate and existential test of all of the definitions of Science Diplomacy presented above? Turns out there is! Good news, I guess? 

While only explicitly addressed in goal 13 in the UN’s sustainable development goals, it becomes immediately obvious upon reviewing the other goals that tackling the global threat of climate change is essential to continuing life on earth as we know it, and addressing that threat will put Science Diplomacy front and center. It is only through a combination of sound science, effective scientific communication, and engaged diplomacy that leads to domestic policy action across a wide variety of stakeholders that we have any hope of tackling the life-threatening imbalance of carbon dioxide currently in our atmosphere because of unmitigated burning of long-sequestered fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. Sounds a bit hopeless, no? Not so! (We hope.) 

The participants who took this course are the folks who are going to get that international component done if anyone can. I was thinking we were going to have a group of folks who needed a lot of help with the science basics as they developed their diplomatic skills but instead we had rock stars who really got it, spoke intelligently about every issue presented, and were able to make connections to the topics presented both to their home nations and abroad, showing even in the earliest stages that they had the makings of the exact kind of people we need to tackle the biggest scientific problems facing the international community and therefore the world. And maybe after that they can come up with a good working definition of ‘Science Diplomacy’ too, no big deal.

You may also be interested in


Beyond diplomatic – the unravelling of history

In his paper, Robert Alston travels through time to rekindle an important highlight – as well as a personal highlight – in the history of knowledge management. His journey takes him back to the 1850s, which saw Antonio Panizzi’s efforts in creating a universal repository of knowledge in the British Museum; and to the 1990s, a time in which he acquired first-hand experience at the same museum, drawing conclusions on the various available ways of navigating large bibliographical and archival databases.


Knowledge management and diplomatic training – new approaches for training institutions

Dietrich Kappeler analyses the new approaches for training institutions in knowledge management and diplomatic training, departing from the premise that a distinction is important between personal characteristics and qualities of the diplomat on one hand, and the knowledge and skills he needs to do his job on the other.


Knowledge management and change in international organisations: Learning from the private sector

In this paper, John Harper and Jennifer Cassingena Harper talk about knowledge as a vital resource, and the necessity of building competencies and establishing new skills. Analysing the theories by Ernst B. Haas in When Knowledge is Power: Three Models of Change in International Organisation, the authors trace the development of knowledge-oriented activities in the private sector, and its implications for organisations in the public and international domain.


The role of knowledge in the cyber-age of globalisation

In his paper, Richard Falk reflects on the application of information technology on diplomacy, and discusses the challenge of converting information technology to ‘knowledge technology’, and subsequently to ‘wisdom technology’. Yet, the ‘crossroads in human experience’ brings many challenges and dangers which the author analyses.


Science & Diplomacy: How countries interact with the Boston innovation ecosystem

Crucial global topics are becoming increasingly dependent on the world’s rapidly changing scientific knowledge and technological capabilities: from global health to digital society, sustainability to development, and beyond. To tackle this growing complexity, countries increasingly seek to engage with international science and technology hubs like Boston, so as to accelerate their ability to innovate and spark collaborative efforts with other nations.


Science diplomacy capacity development

Diplo has a track record of more than 20 years of capacity development in diplomacy. Given the increasing relevance of science diplomacy, expanding our program to include aspects of its theory and practice felt like an organic development. We offered our ten-week Science Diplomacy course for the first time in October 2021.


Knowledge and Diplomacy

Knowledge and Diplomacy presents papers on knowledge and knowledge management from the January 1999 Conference on Knowledge and Diplomacy in Malta. The papers in this book, examining the topic from a variety of backgrounds, academic interests and orientations, reflect the multidisciplinary character of knowledge management. This publication is only available online.


Knowledge management in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malta

In this paper, Maltese diplomat Gaetan Naudi explains how the Maltese MFA embraced the changes introduced by the informatics era. He looks at such changes from a business management perspective, to show how ICTs were introduced to such a fairly large organisation, the concerns raised by the changes, and the progress on computerised knowledge management. He concludes that despite the positive changes introduced thanks to ICTs, this would not have been possible without human involvement.


DiploDialogue – Metaphors for Diplomats

On Diplo’s blog, in Diplo’s classrooms, and at Diplo’s events, dialogues stretch over a series of entries, comments, and exchanges and may even linger. DiploDialogue summarises. It’s like in sports events: DiploDialogue aims to bring focus by deleting what, in hindsight, is less relevant. In this first DiploDialogue, Katharina Höne and Aldo Matteucci discuss the usefulness of analogies and metaphors for understanding international relations and diplomacy.


How do you know what you think you know?

In his paper, J. Thomas Converse focuses on four records-related areas where the issues of knowledge management and diplomacy come together and provide the greatest challenges to archivists, diplomats, historians and technology providers: validation, trustworthiness, context and longevity. He also explores some of the changes and challenges brought about by technology, and urges for a continued embrace of technology, while at the same time demanding the validating and relational functions which give archives their trustworthiness.


Knowledge and Diplomacy – Alex Sceberras Trigona

In his paper, Alex Sceberras Trigona stresses the importance of the diplomatic document as a primary source of diplomatic knowledge, in the light of the distinction between ‘information’ (can be recorded) and knowledge (not easily recorded), the flow of knowledge as information. He then explains the need for dissecting diplomatic documents, and the various level of analysis which are possible, and the effects of digitalisation on knowledge, information and diplomacy.


Knowledge management and diplomacy

In this paper we aim to provide a comprehensive introduction to the topic of knowledge management in diplomacy. First we provide working definitions of knowledge and knowledge management, and examine the evolution of the concepts. Next, we consider specific features of diplomacy that affect and limit the way knowledge management can be implemented. Then we look at specific techniques which diplomacy can adapt from the business sector in the field of knowledge management. Finally, we consider some important questions related to human resources and knowledge management.


Knowledge management: experience from international organisations

In this chapter, John Pace decribes the three-phase evolution of knowledge management in the human rights program of the United Nations. The realisation that knowledge management is a necessity came during the third phase. The author also describes the complex system of monitoring bodies and ad hoc mechanisms, and the developments that took place following four decisions taken in the mid-eighties.


Knowledge management and international development – the role of diplomacy

In this chapter, Walter Fust talks about the role of knowledge management, and knowledge for development, in diplomacy. He describes various methods to assess what knowledge should be stocked, and explains the need for managers who are assigned the task of deciding what should be stocked. These decisions need to be guided by principles, or guidelines - referred to as value management.