Spotlight on Science Diplomacy

Europe / by Lorna Casselton & James Wilsdon /

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently made the case for research as a political bridge. How the UK is building a foundation for a new kind of international policy.

Photo courtesy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Last week, top scientists from more than 100 countries gathered in London for one of the biggest scientific meetings of the year: the InterAcademy Panel. Hosted by the Royal Society as part of its 350th anniversary celebrations, the Panel brings together the world’s science academies to identify how science can help tackle urgent global problems. At the top of the agenda in 2010—the International Year of Biodiversity—is how to stem the crisis of global biodiversity loss.

But biodiversity is only one of many policy priorities where scientists have a role to play, some of which go beyond the traditional preconceptions of scientists’ job descriptions. In a speech on Tuesday, David Miliband, the UK Foreign Secretary, called for a much stronger role for science in foreign policy. At first glance, scientists and diplomats don’t make obvious bedfellows. While science is in the business of uncovering truth, Sir Henry Wotton, the 17th century diplomat, famously pegged an ambassador as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

But the concept of “science diplomacy” is now attracting heavyweight support on both sides of the Atlantic. President Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, which set out to redefine the US’s relationship with the Islamic world, announced an expanded team of science envoys in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In the UK, Professor David Clary, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, was recently appointed as the first chief scientific adviser at the Foreign Office.

There are strong foundations on which science diplomacy can build. Advances in science have long relied on international flows of people and ideas. The post of Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society was instituted in 1723, nearly 60 years before the British Government appointed its first Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Throughout the Cold War, scientific organizations were an important conduit for informal discussion of nuclear issues between the US, Europe, and the Soviet Union. And today, science cooperation offers the potential for alternative channels of engagement with countries such as China, Russia, and Pakistan.

Scientists can uniquely contribute to diplomatic efforts on issues like climate change and biodiversity by informing policymakers with the latest evidence and data on the Earth’s natural and social systems. But science is also increasingly recognized its less direct contributions to foreign policy, its “soft power.” The scientific community often works beyond national boundaries on problems of common interest, so channels of scientific exchange can contribute to coalition-building. Cooperation on the scientific aspects of sensitive issues can sometimes provide a route to other forms of political dialogue. With the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) coming up in May 2010, it is timely to consider how cooperation on the scientific aspects of nuclear disarmament could support the wider diplomatic process.

Another promising initiative is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), which is under construction in Jordan. Modeled on CERN in Europe, SESAME is a partnership between Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey. Synchrotrons are large and expensive facilities, and there are none in the Middle East. By pooling regional resources, SESAME has the potential to build scientific capacity within the region. Although it will not be fully operational until 2012, it is hoped that SESAME will create research career opportunities that limit brain drain from the region, and serve as a model for other areas of scientific collaboration.

Competition hasn’t gone away: The growing scientific capabilities of emerging powers like China, India, Brazil, and others will challenge countries like the US and the UK in some areas. But it is shortsighted to view these developments primarily as a threat. Efforts to strengthen national science and innovation systems remain vital, but must increasingly be accompanied by more creative and better-resourced mechanisms for orchestrating research across international networks in pursuit of shared goals—such as tackling climate change, agricultural production, and energy security. The Large Hadron Collider is a brilliant example of what countries can achieve by working together: a scale of scientific investment and ambition that no one country could manage alone.

As David Miliband said last week: “The scientific world is fast becoming interdisciplinary, but the biggest interdisciplinary leap needed is to connect the worlds of science and politics.” We need to ensure that science is our compass—not just for domestic politics, bu tfor international politics too.

Lorna Casselton is Foreign Secretary and James Wilsdon is Director of Science Policy at the Royal Society, which can be reached here. A full transcript of Milliband’s speech is available online.

Originally published January 19, 2010

Tags cooperation diplomacy policy

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