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TWAS Newsletter
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Amid pandemic, science diplomacy goes virtual

Amid pandemic, science diplomacy goes virtual

To account for the changes made necessary by COVID-19, this year’s AAAS-TWAS course was held entirely online and included about 75 participants.

As the nations of the world push to find new vaccines and mitigation strategies to respond to COVID-19, these nations must also work together, scientifically and politically, to be effective. But the questions surrounding how to accomplish these collaborations illustrate the need for a field of growing importance: science diplomacy.

And these were also questions that seemed ever-present during this year’s AAAS-TWAS Science Diplomacy Course. The course, the seventh occasion of the annual event, was held from 21 to 24 September and was all-virtual for the first time. 

Because of the all-virtual format of this event, it was also the largest. A record of about 75 students were able to attend through a Zoom conference, instead of the usual roughly 25 participants that would normally attend when the event is held in person. It was also held in September, instead of its usual timing in August, to account for the extra preparations that were necessary.

The AAAS-TWAS science diplomacy programme is a globally respected initiative in the field of science diplomacy. Starting with the first course in 2014, the annual courses have hosted nearly 350 scientists, diplomats and policy experts – including speakers – from more than 70 nations. As usual, the four-day course included talks from experts in the science diplomacy field and breakout sessions in which participants from countries as far ranging as Chile, Ghana, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, and Turkey worked together to examine the challenges of science diplomacy. 

This year’s course was built on six years of collaborative work between the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and TWAS, said AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh. “It was intended when the partnership formed starting in 2011 that the complementary strengths of both organisations would provide a strong foundation for developing an international training programme at the intersection of science and diplomacy,” he said. “And I think the 160-plus graduates of the programme prove that the value is there, and that the power is there, of this idea.”

TWAS Executive Director Romain Murenzi, in his opening remarks, urged attendees to consider the importance of science diplomacy for pressing issues such as COVID-19 and how it will affect education in developing nations that lack technological infrastructure for remote learning. “COVID-19 is important to acknowledge, not only because of its obvious impact on our event, but because of its impact on the world, and how science and diplomacy happen to be important keys we need to unlock the solutions to succeeding against it,” he said.

The keynote address was delivered by Zehra Sayers of Sabanci University in Turkey. Sayers is the former chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee for Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) laboratory, and one of the recipients of the 2019 AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy.

Sayers said that among SESAME’s goals were producing excellent science and developing high-level technology infrastructure in the region, establishing cooperation across cultural and political divides, and reversing brain drain. She said that while they consider the science the most important priority at SESAME, it’s impossible not to see the diplomatic element of its functions. 

“So the first thing is to ensure good science,” Sayers said. “The diplomacy part comes a bit naturally, in the sense that when you’re communicating with people from very different backgrounds, nations and cultures, first you learn to listen and second you learn to respond according to their understanding of events. So, more or less, you respond according to their needs, and this is where diplomacy comes in.”

Other experts in science diplomacy who spoke for the course included Eliane Ubalijoro, the deputy executive director for GODAN, Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition; Ambassador Sergio Jorge Pastrana, the former foreign secretary of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba and currently the Ambassador of Cuba in Barbados; and B. Chagun Basha, senior technical specialist at Office of Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India. Each provided a “case study” in science diplomacy.

Ubalijoro explained the role of the Next Einstein Forum, a platform that brings African science and policy together under the belief that African’s contributions to global science are indispensable, with a focus on the continent’s young people. She noted that her career in science diplomacy accelerated when she organised a workshop in 2007 in Rwanda on how to build African bio-economies. During that time, she met Murenzi, who was at the time Rwanda's Minister in Charge of Science, Technology, and Scientific Research, which led to her becoming a member of the Presidential Advisory Council of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Ubalijoro connected the work of promoting science in a pan-African way to science diplomacy, and said she considers it important that Africans think of science diplomacy generationally.

“What really matters is: How are Africans being engaged in science diplomacy, so that we think about what the legacy is that we want to leave as ancestors,” she said. “And science diplomacy is taking a more and more central role in international relations as we face crises that are really deeply linked to science -- whether it’s the COVID-19 pandemic we’re going through, or whether it’s climate change. Science-based decision making is becoming more and more crucial to all policy decision making, locally, nationally and globally.”

Pastrana described science diplomacy from the point of view of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. He used the current COVID-19 pandemic as an example, noting that Cuba has managed to control the disease well because of its prioritisation of science. And, in mixing science with diplomacy, they have for 15 years maintained a group of scientists, physicians and nurses to respond at short notice to disasters or epidemics anywhere in the world. The group is called the “Henry Reeve Medical Brigade”, and it has been activated to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the team have been posted to countries throughout the world, including Italy, Mexico, South Africa and Venezuela. 

“This Henry Reeve Brigade has been working so far in five continents, and mostly in 15 small island countries of the Caribbean where they have been able to help deal with the local epidemic of COVID-19,” noted Pastrana, “And this has contributed among other things for the Caribbean to be one of the areas where the epidemic has been able to be contained. This is notably the result of science-advised decision making.”

Basha posed a question for his discussion: Why do countries pursue science diplomacy as an activity? 

He said he considers the answer to differ country-to-country based on many factors, and each participant should take that into account. With India, he noted, a pre-existing institutional architecture for science policy already exists, and so the nation has an advantage when it comes to pursuing science diplomacy. Just last year, he noted, India’s Ministry of External Affairs started a new dedicated division called NEST, or the New Emerging Strategic Technologies Division. 

“I don’t think, in our vicinity in the South Asian region, there are units which directly focus on science and technology within the ministry of foreign affairs, in a formal capacity,” Basha noted. “So this is another way India is institutionalizing science diplomacy within the existing policy system and translating it into action.”

Sean Treacy