Science diplomacy

Focus: Will science diplomacy survive?


Science diplomacy has the potential to help us address some of the most pressing challenges of our time such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. In both cases science diplomacy has already illustrated its potential. Yet, we are still very far from achieving our global goals.

2022 is an important year to further shape the practice of science diplomacy and bring clarity to confusion.

Science diplomacy has become somewhat of a buzzword and is used in many different ways by different actors. So in the following, let us unpack the concept of science diplomacy and highlight some of its practices. 

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What is science diplomacy?

There are three types of science diplomacy (AAAS and Royal Society, 2010): 

  • Science in diplomacy is about the use of scientific advice for foreign policy decision-making. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations is an important example. Established in 1988, the IPCC brings together the latest scientific advice on climate change.
  • Diplomacy for science often include large-scale research facilities, which given their cost and resource intensity can only be built through collaboration among a number of countries. The most  example of diplomacy for science is the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which was established in 1954 after negotiations between 12 founding member states.  
  • Science for diplomacy is the promotion of a more peaceful world through scientific cooperation. CERN is also an example of science for diplomacy. A commonly cited recent example of science for diplomacy is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), a research facility based in Jordan. It’s members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey. This is very notable as the diplomatic relationships between some of the members are very strained. Iran54 and Israel, for example, have not had direct diplomatic relationships since 1979.

How is science diplomacy conducted?

  • Development and management of international cooperation
  • Negotiations
  • Diplomatic reporting

A good example of the practice of science diplomacy is CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN. Its founding reveals two different aspects of practising science diplomacy. Have a sneak peak into our science diplomacy online course and learn more about CERN’s origin story. 


Why does science diplomacy matter?

Science diplomacy mirrors the importance of science for modern society from the fight against pandemics to nuclear non-proliferation and the fight against climate change. Science for diplomacy can also contribute towards more international cooperation and, ultimately, more peaceful international relations.

Who are science diplomats?

States and their representatives

The main actors are states. According to Flink and Schreiterer (2010) they are motivated to participate in science diplomacy by the following main goals:

  • Access: Ensure access to ‘researchers, research findings and research facilities natural resources and capital’ (Flink and Schreiterer, 2010, p. 669)
  • Promotion: Promote the country’s research and development achievements
  • Influence: Impact public opinions abroad and the opinion of foreign decisionmakers
  • Research cooperation: Support participation in large-scale research efforts that would otherwise not be realistic or possible
  • Addressing global challenges: Work towards addressing global challenges such as climate change

When it comes to putting these goals into practice, diplomats and official representatives are called upon.

Scientists serving as science attachés

Some of the first science attachés were scientists who were sent abroad to represent their country. We already mentioned the zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles, the US science attaché in the 19th century. The USA maintained one of the biggest networks of science attachés, including 24 attachés at the height of the science attachés programme in 1987 (Linkov et al., 2014).

The appointment of science attachés often follows broader strategic interests.77 In 2009, former US president Obama appointed three science attachés to Muslim-majority countries following his outreach efforts to the Muslim world (El-Baz, 2010).

Many examples of science attachés come from the Global North.78 However, looking more closely, we can identify cases of scientists acting as state representatives from the Global South. The term ‘science attaché’ is often not used in these cases, and does not strictly apply, but parts of the practice of these individuals do fit within a broader understanding of the work of science attachés. Hornsby and Parshotam (2018) looked at the participation of states from sub-Saharan Africa in international food standard-setting. They found that some ‘scientists act as state representatives, advancing an interest-based position in negotiations around scientifically based international standards’.

Scientists who serve in this role need to have a good understanding of diplomacy and international relations. More often than not, their science communication skills are called upon. They also need to navigate a fine line between their role as scientists and their role as envoys. Science advisors working with foreign ministries have a global network called the  Foreign Ministries S&T Advice Network (FMSTAN).

Officials from other ministries and national institutions

If we look at current case studies, we see that some science attachés are seconded from other ministries, national scientific institutions, and other relevant domestic stakeholders. Looking at the case of France, for example, Flink and Schreiterer (2010) found that science attachés ‘are seconded from different institutional stakeholders according to their individual agenda with respect to the region’ that they are sent to.

It is also worth noting that in some cases, other ministries, such as the ministry for the economy or science and innovation, take the lead on science diplomacy efforts. For example, South Africa created the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, which became the Department of Science and Technology in 2002, and was later renamed the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). It aims to pursue a ‘concerted science diplomacy strategy’ (Pandor, 2012). Different institutional cultures and perspectives on the main goals of science diplomacy can, in these cases, complicate finding a coherent and sustained approach.

Diplomats with a portfolio that includes science and technology

Diplomats who serve as official representatives of their countries also practice science diplomacy. Some simply touch upon science diplomacy practices as part of their work. For example, trade negotiators might need to liaise and collaborate with scientists back home on specialised questions. Diplomats based in Geneva might find themself in meetings at CERN regarding their countries’ membership.

In addition, career diplomats are also appointed to specific roles that give their practice a clear focus on science diplomacy. These include: special ambassadors or envoys for science diplomacy, scientific counsellors, and tech ambassadors.

Networks abroad

There are also outreach posts of states or groups of states for diplomatic and scientific interactions. They engage in science diplomacy, but do not have the status of an embassy. Sometimes they have the status of a consulate85, but only perform consular work in major emergency situations. Examples include:

Where is science diplomacy performed?

International organisations (IOs) are the main multilateral venue for science diplomacy. Examples of IO activities are: 

FAQs on Science Diplomacy

Some approaches subsume science diplomacy under public diplomacy. In this sense, science diplomacy is about winning hearts and minds; it is about creating a positive image of one’s country.

For clarity, let us look at a definition of public diplomacy. According to the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD), it is defined as ‘the transparent means by which a sovereign country communicates with publics in other countries aimed at informing and influencing audiences overseas for the purpose of promoting the national interest and advancing its foreign policy goals. […] The concept of soft power coined by international relations scholar Joseph Nye has, for many, become a core concept in public diplomacy studies. Nye defines soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”‘.

From this description and the examples on this page, we can see that science diplomacy is much more than public diplomacy and the one should not be reduced to the other. Having said this, it is important to recognise that for many countries, and in particular the USA, the practice of science diplomacy often has strong elements of public diplomacy.

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Science diplomacy is not a new practice. Yet, the term itself only came into general use relatively recently. While there is not one specific point at which the term emerged in its current use, its prominence in publications and various discourses began around 2005 (Flink and Rüffin, 2019).

Yet, examples of science diplomacy can be identified much earlier. Scholars Flink and Rüffin trace science diplomacy, understood as ‘scientific cooperation across borders’, back to the 17th century and the emergence of ‘modern’ science (Flink and Rüffin, 2019). They argue that communication and collaboration among scientists across borders finds its origin there. For example, in 1723, the British Royal Society created the position of ‘foreign secretary’ of the Royal Society.

This person was ‘to maintain regular correspondence with scientists overseas to ensure that the Society’s Fellows remained up-to-date with the latest ideas and research findings’ (Royal Society, 2010, p. 1). The emergence of modern nation states in the 19th century and rising nationalism, however, challenged cooperation across borders. Some scientific cooperation across borders, for example in the field of astronomy, still flourished during that time. Nationalism also gave new impetus to scientific progress as a means to foster a nation’s reputation 17and thus emphasised competition.

If we focus on science diplomacy as a set of activities and policies pursued by state actors, then the practice of sending representatives abroad to act as ‘science envoys’ or ‘science attachés’ can be traced back to at least the late 19th century (Linkov et al., 2014). In 1898, the USA stationed a science attaché, the zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles, at its Berlin embassy. As part of US diplomacy, science attachés became more prominent in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Science and technology are both considered the foundations of modern society. These terms are often used in modern parlance. The fundamental difference between science and technology is that it can be viewed as “disinterested knowledge and research” but not necessarily aimed at solving a practical problems. Technology is commonly referred to in this way as “applied science”.

But, it’s difficult to discern such clear distinctions in practice. Technology and science are often interconnected. It is not easy to tell the difference between scientific discoveries in mathematics, and the development of computers. Science and technology have been complementing one another. This distinction has become more blurred in the last ten years.

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Science attachés played an important role in the response to COVID-19. In the cases of France and the UK, the science attaché network was particularly important as part of the initial crisis response. This included supporting repatriation efforts and giving advice in the area of medical technologies to colleagues from other fields, such as trade. Later, science attachés were important in collecting information on initiatives and publications in their geographic region.

It is interesting to observe, though, that they mainly supported national efforts while Unsurprisingly, science attachés played an important role in the response to COVID-19. In the cases of France and the UK, the science attaché network was particularly important as part of the initial crisis response. This included supporting repatriation efforts and giving advice in the area of medical technologies to colleagues from other fields, such as trade.

Later, science attachés were important in collecting information on initiatives and publications in their geographic region. It is interesting to observe, though, that they mainly supported national efforts while struggling to maintain contact and collaborate with colleagues from other countries.

Based on this experience, a number of suggestions have been made on how to improve the work of science attachés. You can read more in the article Science Attachés in a Post-COVID-19 World: Taking Stock of the Crisis from Science & Diplomacy.

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