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Blog Post | Actions and Lofty Promises of Science Diplomacy

Scholars from the field of science, technology and innovation (STI) policy have often questioned whether there was substantive difference between international STI policy and science diplomacy. This is hard to answer, but at least we can observe that science diplomacy has had great appeal over the last years.

When the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) founded the Center for Science Diplomacy in 2008, the concept was also endorsed by the newly inaugurated US president Barack Obama. At about the same time, in early 2009, the Federal Foreign Office of Germany launched the Initiative on Foreign Science Policy (“Initiative Außenwissenschaftspolitik”), creating new bi- and multilateral funding programs, such as Centers of Excellence and Science and Innovation Houses. These initiatives sought to promote science and build better international relations. France’s Foreign Ministry launched a similar initiative in 2013, while Great Britain had promoted related activities since the beginning of the millennium already. Needless to say, many other countries have taken to marketing science diplomacy be it by launching new initiatives, or rendering existing initiatives more visible, all of which are supposed to create awareness that STI and international relations greatly interrelate.

Who is in charge of science diplomacy?

We can and should acknowledge that for decades, science attachés and counsellors have been stationed in embassies, consulates, and liaison offices around the world. Usually, these staff are seconded by research and innovation ministries to work as temporarily borrowed diplomats abroad or, as career diplomats from foreign ministries they happen to have been rotated to a position that covers science abroad – often next to education and cultural affairs. Some governments augment their science diplomacy portfolio by borrowing staff from research umbrella organizations or public research funding agencies. However, such collaborations depend on several organisations’ willingness to collaboratively promote science and technology activities. And in some cases, STI organisations do not want to be coordinated by the government – even if such coordination results in greater visibility or a more coherent approach to science diplomacy.

What science diplomacy is actually about?

In terms of activities, the mainstream of science diplomacy revolves around observing and promoting science, technology, innovation and higher education policies abroad, marketing a nation’s related domestic actors and their activities, and establishing bi- and multilateral funding projects and institutional support structures (legal frameworks, MoUs, joint programming secretariats etc.). To do so, some governments have developed grand strategies in which diplomats follow quasi-business plans that relate to strategic national goals. Such is the case with organisations that operate in a foreign country on a fairly competitive basis: Science diplomacy means promoting a country’s STI-programs and forging joint partnerships in countries of strategic interest, whilst rivalling with actors seeking the same goal.

In a similar vein, science diplomacy means safeguarding access to places and objects of scientific interests, which often translates epistemic needs of researchers into political questions of infrastructure and data protection: If you are part of an international geophysical research team, can you just pack your equipment and go drilling for sediment cores in the polar regions? Obviously not, and neither can you just take medical data back home, after you have done research on patients abroad. These cross-border issues in academia are non-trivial and require diplomatic, legal and financial accommodation.

Finally science diplomacy is about influencing, a delicate issue when relations between states are rife with tension. But endorsers of this particular strategy argue that international science collaborations can work as a form of ersatz diplomacy to influence another nation’s government or civil society. Increasingly used in response to the renunciation of international sovereignty rights by rising autocratic powers, this purpose rests on the questionable strategy of exploiting the common assumption that science was an apolitical and purely collaborative undertaking by cosmopolitans.

Last but not least, science diplomacy epitomizes an awareness that grand societal challenges do not stop at national borders. Thus, if policy-makers want to find answers to global challenges, they would need to fuel cross-border scientific collaborations, not just for the sake of producing scientific evidence but joint solutions to problems. Advocates of science diplomacy argue that while traditional diplomacy seems defective due to national political egoism, the attitudes and norms of science – joint and disinterested advancement of knowledge – should form a precedent.

The problem of rhapsodizing about science diplomacy

While the discourse has turned science diplomacy into a concept that gets bloated by a growing blend of STI and foreign affairs issues, its endorsers have sugar-coated the concept with good-natured collaborative intentions. When Google-ing the search term “science diplomacy”, one finds glossy images of solution-oriented hand-shakers in business clothes and lab coats celebrating their harmonious collaboration.

And yet, this expansion of science diplomacy is problematic. First, because it builds on a romantic and august image of science that would hardly pass muster with reality: Just as any other social undertaking, science contains distorted levels of competition, chauvinism, vanity, self-complacency, fraud, misconduct and other forms of inglorious behaviour, and not least it is crucially interwoven and driven by egoistic national economic goals in a global competitive market setting. Science is not a global Woodstock festival, and adjuring cosmopolitan collaborations in the name of science diplomacy does not change a thing. Second, science can produce solutions just as well as incertitude and negative externalities. Hence, apart from the fact that simply calling for more scientific advice in foreign policy is a platitude – at least from the perspective of 40 years of science, technology and innovation studies –, we are dealing with naïvely modernistic (i.e. linear) ideas of technocratic decision-making. And last, do scientists want to be instrumentalized by politics in the name of science diplomacy – sometimes without even knowing so?

No one is against a big portion of idealism, but if endorsers keep promising heaven and earth in the name of science diplomacy, often on the basis of historical fairy tales and ungainly solutionist rhetoric, they might even harm the actual unagitated activities of science diplomacy that have taken place for decades.

Tim Flink is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in political science and sociology. Based at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the German Center of Higher Education and Science Research (DZHW), his work focuses on topics at the intersection of Science Policy Research, Social Studies Of Science and International Relations. He published the first comprehensive social history and policy analysis of the European Research Council (2016).

To find his recent contribution to The Hague Journal of Diplomacy click here.

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