Since this vocabulary began to circulate in the first years of the new millennium, science diplomacy has been describing the various practices that bridge science, technology and foreign affairs. It is both a set of tools available to nation states to exercise their diplomatic action, and a process to address major threats which challenge the world order and have a science-intensive nature. In line with the traditional state-centred approach to diplomacy, science diplomacy is driven by national interests and needs. But it aims also at solving global issues such as the preservation of the environment, of biodiversity and of human health — the last of which is exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. With its twofold rationale, being at the same time state centric and global governance oriented, science diplomacy is an instrument of choice for managing tensions between national interests and common interests.
Science diplomacy draws its appeal from being properly attuned to its time, and it does this in two ways. First, global issues are put at its centre. Second, non-state actors find their place in it. By defining science diplomacy from the interactions between the world of science and that of diplomacy, the influential report New Frontiers of Science Diplomacy1 led to the identification of scientists and scientific institutions as potential diplomatic actors, which was consistent with the contemporary vision of new diplomacy. Science diplomacy is a specific form of diplomacy but it also displays its uniqueness which is, according to the dominant discourse, to be a virtuous approach fuelled by the universal values of science. Through the levers of international scientific co-operation and sound scientific advice to policy-making, science diplomacy would hold the power to reduce political tensions and mitigate conflicts between countries, improve mutual understanding between peoples, advance the satisfaction of common interests and contribute to global peace. From a policy perspective, the appeal of science diplomacy is rooted in this promise of a better international order.
2 The Contributions in this Forum
In the 2010 report mentioned above, science diplomacy was said to be a ‘fluid concept’. Ten years later, the concept is still not completely stabilised and there is ample room for academic scrutiny. The contributions in this forum aim to advance the understanding of science diplomacy. They emanate from scholars and from practitioners, and revolve around two axes. Three pieces are conceptual in nature: they address the definitions and the perimeter of science diplomacy, and question the dominant discourse which does not always reflect reality. Four pieces are more particularly centred on the actors of science diplomacy and on the individuals who implement and ‘co-construct’ it, whether they originate from the sphere of science or from that of diplomacy.
Science diplomacy exists through its practices and through the narratives dedicated to it. The first essay of this forum, by Tim Flink, develops a trenchant criticism of the prevailing discourse, described as ‘sensationalist’. What permeates the narratives is an almost Manichean distribution of roles between the figures of scientists, portrayed as unpolitical, cosmopolitan and truth-seeking individuals and of national politicians and diplomats, unable to step over the national interests they represent. Flink sees in it a strategy of advocates of science diplomacy for seizing their own legitimacy. He alerts on the risk that such a discourse could raise expectations that the science system would not be able to meet.
The gap between discourse and reality is also central in Pierre-Bruno Ruffini’s essay, which argues that the discourse is biased. This discourse has been authored by practitioners who are scientists or former scientists permeated by the universalism of science, who believe in science as a source of progress and transfer their convictions to the geopolitical field. They magnify the capacity of co-operation for positively transforming international relations. Yet the logic of competition can inspire some of the practices of science diplomacy. While the prevailing and contingent discourse is useful for some practitioners and for activists, it cannot satisfy the scholar, who must acknowledge that the logics of competition and collaboration intertwine in the practices of science diplomacy.
As a vocabulary and concept, innovation diplomacy is as recent as science diplomacy. But from Pascal Griset’s historian perspective, innovation diplomacy is not new, as evidenced, for example, by international negotiations regarding railways, electricity and telegraph in the 19th century. But how do we position innovation diplomacy? Is it a particular form of science diplomacy, or its by-product, at the crossroads of scientific knowledge and business? Having pointed to its ancient and often neglected ties with economic and technical diplomacy, Griset opts for the following answer: innovation diplomacy is a hybrid category which combines the scientific, technological, economic and even cultural dimensions of diplomacy.
A concept of the 21st century, can science diplomacy be applied retrospectively? This question is generally answered positively. Analysing from archival works the academic and technical exchanges between the USSR and the United States during the Cold War, Olga Krasnyak shows that despite the highly competitive environment of the period, the two superpowers could co-operate. The specific contribution of this piece is to perfectly document the day-to-day work conducted by members of the foreign service, the pivotal role of embassies in the organisation of contacts and the importance of interpersonal relationships in the success of carefully supervised scientific exchanges — these became a way to build trust at the top levels of diplomacy as well as between scientists and professionals of one country with their foreign colleagues.
If the vocabulary had existed, these actors who supported in the field the scientific collaborations between the United States and the USSR would have been called ‘science diplomats’. But the so-named science diplomat was born only with science diplomacy, and it has inherited from the ‘fluid concept’ its difficulty in being defined. The typology proposed by Lorenzo Melchor helps clarify the issue: beside ‘institutionalised’ science diplomats (chief scientific advisers, scientific attachés, etc.), there is a fuzzy set of ‘non-institutionalised’ positions (managers in research organisations with no formal science diplomacy mandate, civil society representatives and other science diplomacy facilitators). Reflecting on what a science diplomat is sheds light on today’s practices of science diplomacy, mixing top-down and bottom-up initiatives and interactions of state and non-state actors.
The essay by Melchor questions the required knowledge and skills to become a science diplomat. Some answers to the same question are provided by Meredith Gore, Elizabeth Nichols and Karen Lips. Noting that most academic scientists lack sufficient training in the policy process, exposure to science diplomacy and capacity to deliver science advice, they call for a rethinking of program curricula at all levels. This reflection is important, as the question of ‘how to train future science diplomats’ has emerged as a new educational challenge, and has encouraged the creation of specialised courses, training sessions and summer schools dedicated to improving the bridging of the scientific and foreign policy communities.
An essay from an early practitioner, Paul Berkman, concludes this forum and proposes a methodology to guide action. Science diplomacy is a process for building common interests, and its main engine is informed decision-making. The continuum of urgencies and the security and sustainability timescales are introduced as key notions. On the example of COVID-19, they are articulated around the reference to the inflection point in the development of the pandemic. The essay is also a first-hand illustration that science diplomacy can be more than a set of tools and practices: it can be lived up to a vision of the world and to the service of a cause, that of the enhancement of common interests, of the international order and the well-being of humanity.
Science diplomacy as conceptualized since the beginning of the millennium is an emerging field of public policy. It has also raised a growing interest in the academic sphere. Due to the youth of the concept, there is room for theorisation and a great need for empirical case studies. With an impressive diversity in approaches, the essays of this forum have given some evidence of the reflections that this interdisciplinary field stimulates. We hope that they will serve as inspiration for further academic research.
Faculty of International Affairs, University of Le Havre-Normandie, Le Havre, France
Royal Society and AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy (London: Royal Society 2010).
is a Professor at the Faculty of International Affairs at the University of Le Havre-Normandie in France, and a member of Équipe D’Économie — Le Havre Normandie (EDEHN). He is a former Counsellor for Science and Technology at Embassies of France in Russia and Italy. He acts as expert in the ongoing European research project ‘Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe’ (InsSciDE — H2020).
Royal Society and AAAS 2010.