The inflation of science diplomacy

The concept of science diplomacy has gained enormous traction over the past decade, though in itself it is of course of older origin. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the general meeting of which took place from 14-18 February in Washington DC, has a long track record in science diplomacy. AAAS has since 2008 a special enter for Science Diplomacy that publishes a special journal, Science & Diplomacy; social and political scientists attempt to turn it into an academic discipline. Whether this is all for the good of a clear conceptual idea of science diplomacy remains to be seen, however. The many discussions about science diplomacy at last week’s general AAAS meeting gave reasons for doubt. When researchers presenting results of a major EC-funded project told the audience that World War II is an example of science diplomacy n a negative sense, one wonders whether they really understand science diplomacy. Warring parties will use all means at their disposal, including science and technology, to win the war. One could as well call two competing companies using science and technology to outdo each other as being engaged in science diplomacy.

It would be important to strictly reserve the term science diplomacy for using science in the form of research or of policies for science to further diplomatic objectives, especially in situations of tension. It has to be clearly distinguished from normal international collaboration in science, which is happening to increase quality (that was the reason to establish the European Research Council – ERC) or to enhance efficiency or attain a necessary scale (the argument behind establishing large international research facilities, or infrastructures in the current jargon). Let us look first at some unmistakable examples of science diplomacy at work.

Maybe the oldest example of active science diplomacy goes back to the early 60-ies. President John Kennedy of the US had appointed Harvard Professor Edwin O. Reischauer, a Japan scholar, as US ambassador to Japan in 1961. Kennedy sought for ways to improve relations between Japan and the USA which were tense, understandable given the post-war history of the two nations. So he asked Reischauer to recommend a few areas where cooperation and dialogue might lead to better understanding. One of the three areas Reischauer came up with was science and science policy. One concrete recommendation was to organise every three years a high-level dialogue on science policy between the USA and Japan on Hawaii. That has become a tradition since, as I witnessed when I was invited to participate in 1998 as president of the OECD MegaScience Forum.

Another good example is the establishment of CERN. From many sides, including US Nobel prize winning physicist (1944) Isidor Rabi and UNESCO, the idea was promoted to establish a joint European organization for nuclear physics to contribute to healing wounds in post-war Europe. In contrast, none of the other European International Research Organisations such as the European Space Agency or the European Synchrotron Research Facility have anything to do with science diplomacy. They are just the consequence of the need to bundle financial, technical and human resources to keep up with the requirements of such sprawling fields.

The European Science Foundation (ESF) that was also mentioned in a session at the AAAS general meeting last week in the context of science diplomacy was nothing of the kind. European Commissioner Spinelli had put forward in the early 70-ies a proposal to establish, in essence, what is now the ERC as a logical step to further European integration in the field of science. National funding agencies and Academies of Science did not want to lose their prerogatives, and followed the lead of the UK Royal Society to pre-empt this by establishing the ESF (though under Spinelli’s successor, Dahrendorf) the proposal was retracted anyway).

But there are other very incisive examples. They range from establishing the International Institute for Systems Analysis, IIAS, in Vienna in the middle of the Cold War, to keep intact scientific relations in this field with the Soviet-Union and its satellites. Or the recent case of SESAME, the synchrotron research facility in Jordan in which basically all countries in the contentious are of the Middle East participate, and which sees scientist throughout the region collaborate. And certainly the Iran deal on freezing its nuclear programme is a good case in point. Nuclear experts, including the US Secretary of Energy, Ernie Monaz who was dean of Physics at MIT (and a Vice-President of the OECD MegaScience Forum when I was chairing it), contributed heavily to creating the minimum levels of trust required.

It is never too late to learn from Confucius who started his Analects with the exhortation to “rectify the words” (in the translation of Simon Leys).

Featured image credit: Diplomacy by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Peter Tindemans

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