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TWAS Newsletter
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Science diplomacy: Seizing a new opportunity

Science diplomacy: Seizing a new opportunity

Science diplomacy holds enormous potential for solving problems and building international relationships. Four science policy leaders explore how the South can build its capacity for a new era.

In recent years, the concept of science diplomacy has gained momentum in the developed world, and today the idea is winning attention in the developing world. But science policy leaders say that, especially in the South, a focused effort is needed to prepare government officials and scientists to take full advantage. In interviews with TWAS, four high-level policy leaders suggested that science diplomacy can help build new relationships between developing and developed nations to support advances in food and energy production, pursuit of big, complex science projects, and even public engagement with science. And yet there is a lingering concern that science diplomacy must be a tool for building equitable partnerships, with fair benefits even for the least developed partners.

To explore these issues, TWAS staff writer Cristina Serra conducted email interviews with Zafra Lerman, creator and advocate for the Biennial Malta Conferences; TWAS Fellow Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, secretary of the Indian Department of Biotechnology; Sergio Pastrana, foreign secretary and executive director, Cuban Academy of Sciences; and Willie Ganda, the director of research development and innovation for the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development in Zimbabwe. Both Pastrana and Ganda participated in 2014 science diplomacy events at TWAS.

What is the state of science diplomacy, and the level of awareness of this concept, today in developing nations?

Lerman: I think that today, there are various levels of awareness concerning science diplomacy in different developing nations. Being the president of the Malta Conferences Foundation, I see firsthand the high interest in science diplomacy among the scientists that participate in the Malta Conferences. These scientists that come from 15 Middle East countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates) are very involved in science diplomacy and are encouraging many of their colleagues to do the same. I was approached by scientists from Africa and Asia who are interested in duplicating this approach.

VijayRaghavan: Science diplomacy needs to move to centre-stage from the periphery. Science is the fulcrum on which technology, industry, trade, energy, health and agriculture rest. Many developed countries see this and have taken the lead, but developing countries should see the importance of this soon.

Ganda: In the developing world science diplomacy is still in its infancy and the awareness levels of the concept are very low. In some countries knowledge about the concept of science diplomacy is almost nonexistent. To those already exposed to the concept, interest is growing, but that interest has not been matched with sustained capacity-building programmes to develop this concept.

Pastrana:  The concept of science diplomacy may not define a discipline, but rather describe a tool. Diplomats tend to dismiss the title, as it should not be considered any separate entity within diplomacy, while scientists tend to think that science cannot be maneuvered to support national interests. Since the end of WWII, the way scientific enterprise became part of national development strategies, and science, technology and innovation became unavoidable elements of national development, the need for science advice for decision-making has increased in both developed and developing societies.

Science diplomacy has typically been associated with the US and Europe. Compared to them, are there differences in the ways developing nations might use science diplomacy?

VijayRaghavan: The US and Europe have seen science and education as instruments of foreign policy, of income and of brain-gain. Developing countries have seen science and education in the West as a trade-off between the gains of training against the loss of brain drain. Developing countries must now push to develop capacity of the highest quality, locally. This can happen with speed only if there is internal will and international collaboration with the West. 

Ganda: Developed countries can apply science diplomacy through leveraging their science resources to interface with other countries, especially in the area of capacity-building and collaborations. Due to limitations in resources, the scope and impact of science diplomacy efforts is limited in developing countries. Developing countries are more inclined to science diplomacy efforts that address social problems in areas like health and natural resources management that tend to be transboundary in nature.

Pastrana: The differences in convenience of the use of science diplomacy by developed or developing countries must always be questioned on the basis of intentions. Science diplomacy would be an effective tool for developing countries when it allows widening the scope of limited discussion for decision-making across political borders. It will become a liability when diplomacy turns to advocacy on the part of a powerful partner, and it goes beyond discussion to arm-twisting, from advice to interference on sovereignty, and from building understanding to building subversion.

Lerman: Living in the US, I hear a lot of talking about science diplomacy, but I cannot say that I see a lot of action. In the countries in the Middle East, there is action through science diplomacy because often this is the only form of diplomacy that works. Many of these countries are at odds with each other, but through the Malta Conferences, contacts were developed that use science diplomacy through scientific collaborations that address important regional issues like water quality and the environment. These subjects don’t recognize borders on the map and therefore they can be dealt with only through collaborations among the scientists from different nations. This is science diplomacy in action.

What would be some areas where science diplomacy might be most promising for the developing world?

Ganda: Some areas where science diplomacy might be promising include the bringing together of countries to collaborate and work together at regional level to address transboundary problems in areas like health, agriculture, natural resources exploitation, management and others. These collaborations and sharing of best practices will foster unity and common understanding and minimize conflicts that may stem from the scarcity of these natural resources.

Pastrana: I believe that capacity-building in the advisory role of scientists, public understanding of science, and the building of consensus to support sustainable development efforts are several of those issues that could be beneficial for developing countries and can be better advanced by relations supported on science diplomacy. It will also be effective in any work against widespread poverty and hunger.

Lerman: The developing world lags behind the developed world in science education, a vital factor in problem-solving. The lack of science education limits the ability of developing nations to compete in entrepreneurship and innovations, and in solving problems like air and water quality, alternative energy sources, and medical advancements. Collaborations between the nations on developing a unified curriculum in science education can play a role in science diplomacy and in solving many worldwide problems.

VijayRaghavan: Science diplomacy holds promise in the field of life science in general, including health, climate research, renewable energy, agriculture, as well as in the preservation of ecosystems. These are matters that concern the planet as a whole and know no national boundaries. 

Some developing countries are using science diplomacy to establish or improve their relationships with neighbouring countries. Is such an approach effective?

Pastrana: Sure. I have defended that point of view in several lectures and papers; notably in the case of Cuba and the United States, but also across countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, and several others in North-South and South-South relations. Although it is difficult to assess how effective it has been in bringing defining results, science diplomacy efforts of this sort have evidently contributed to conflict resolution or at least to establish a climate of rapprochement in many political conflicts during the second part of the 20th century and the beginnings of the present one.

Lerman: I think that science diplomacy is the best tool for this purpose. If you consider the turmoil and instability in the Middle East and the lack of success with traditional diplomacy, but observe the successes in science diplomacy, you must be persuaded that this is the best tool for peace and stability among neighboring countries. When you see projects that involve collaborations between Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, you must admit that science diplomacy can succeed where other approaches fail.

VijayRaghavan: To answer this question, we must keep in mind the ‘hope’ underlying science-diplomacy. One expectation could be that it is a way to extend national influence. In my view this should not be our expectation and when it is, it may not succeed, or at least not in a planned way. Our expectation should be, in the context of relationships, that science is a great aid in improving understanding between cultures and peoples in general. Larger countries have the possibility of starting many kinds of science institutions that smaller nations may not be able to afford. Access should be freely available to smaller countries from the rest of the world at the same terms as for their citizens. This is not easy to do, as we often get caught in structuring different fees and fellowships for different people, and resources are always short.

Ganda: Yes. However this depends on the context and level of cooperation or collaboration. Where big science projects with huge budgets and high impact for countries are involved, the degree and levels of inter-state interactions are sufficiently senior and adequate for significant improvements in country relations. For developing countries, however, science diplomacy may not yet be possible at such high levels, as the status of science has not grown to levels were those directly involved in influencing bilateral or multilateral relations can directly see it as a valuable tool.

How could science diplomacy be used better, especially in developing countries?

Lerman: Scientists in the developing countries should be encouraged to participate in science diplomacy through projects of collaboration between their neighboring countries. Many of these scientists have no knowledge of the existence of science diplomacy. Most are focused on their own research and teaching their students, and are not involved in transborder collaborations. With more initiative taken by the leadership of the country in order to facilitate cooperation and collaborations among scientists, science diplomacy will be much more successful.

VijayRaghavan: We need to do three things. First, set up teaching, training and research programmes on a large scale in developing countries to be used by developing countries’ citizens. (I'm thinking of a developing country version of the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory). Second, we need to attract the best scientists in the world to come and work in the new structures that we create in developing countries. Third, we need to make sure that scientists in the developing world have access to major research centres in the West, like synchrotrons, accelerators, telescopes, animal research facilities. All these three require money, but also diplomacy.

Ganda: In developing countries science diplomacy can be used better through tailor made and more appropriate strategies that encompass programmes or projects that do not involve a lot of money. Whilst developed countries have applied science diplomacy in large projects or programmes that require significant resources, this may not be possible in developing countries due to lack of resources and personnel to participate in such programmes or projects.

Pastrana: It can be much better used by building and developing the science-policy interface. Most developing countries have not identified a national science-technology and innovation system, or even when they have an emerging STI system, they lack the definition of any established national science policy. To be able to engage on science diplomacy activities, any country must have a recognized national scientific structure with a representative status and an effective science advisory system. Sometimes, they lack independent respected institutions or persons. In other cases the governmental structure denies every possibility to build such a relation. In both cases national interests suffer because decisions are arbitrarily defined on immediate constraints.

Are there obstacles or limits to using science diplomacy in the developing world? What are they, and how can they be overcome?

VijayRaghavan: There is only so much strategy-planning one can do. Scientists are least equipped in predicting what will happen in the world of politics. If the purpose of science diplomacy is to build relationships on a foundation of science, realpolitik will always have to be taken into account. But a tradition of scientific relationships can be a balm in troubled times. So, even in the most difficult of relationships, exchanges in science and art and culture can be an important component for communication and the building of a new direction. 

Ganda: Yes, obstacles do exist. One includes limited financial resources for countries to initiate or collaborate on science diplomacy programmes or initiatives. The second is the lack of the required human skills to enable collaboration or engagements in science diplomacy. The third obstacle is the general lack of appreciation of science; hence it’s not prioritized when it comes to national processes of allocating resources. To overcome these obstacles, a lot of capacity-building needs to be done focusing on science education for policymakers so that any initiatives to promote science and in turn science diplomacy are well supported.

Pastrana: In the case of developing countries, problems like widespread hunger and poverty can only be solved by the application of knowledge. Most of the knowledge to be applied is to be found in developed and emerging countries. A good way for science diplomacy to prove its case is the work that can be done across borders in this sense. This shall in time contribute to better relations between neighboring countries of different levels of development. The way to overcome problems would depend on the will to use this tool for government, and the capacity to do it. Both the will and the capacities can be created and promoted.

Lerman: The biggest obstacle is funding. Money is required to form collaborations on scientific issues like climate change, water quality, alternative energy sources, chemistry safety and security, to name just a few. Scientists must meet to discuss and design plans for cooperation and collaborations. This takes money. To do the research and the work for the projects also requires funding. The lack of financial support is the biggest obstacle in developing sound science diplomacy.

What is the role of science diplomacy in facilitating and supporting big global projects that bring together developed and developing world, like the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) or the Square-Kilometre Array radio telescope project in Australia and South Africa?

Ganda: Science diplomacy can help in facilitating such projects through capacity-building programmes that enable developing countries to fully participate in such projects. Whilst opportunities to participate can be availed, everything boils down to capacity to make any meaningful contribution. Science diplomacy can thus help by putting initiatives that build the required capacities in developing countries so that they can meaningfully contribute and participate in such large projects.

Pastrana: Many big science tools and big projects these days cannot be run by one single nation. The International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider are glaring examples of that. Since many countries will participate in any such effort, the need to include developing countries is the result of the realization that we need scientific capacity and literacy everywhere if we are to address global issues and solve global problems. The way to achieve that is through capacity-building, and the need to support such a position should be recognized not only by developed, but by developing countries. The administration of such programs should be in partnership, but the financial support must come for those more affluent, considering those expenses as an investment towards a rewarding future solution of shared problems.

Lerman: These big global projects are very important for the advancement of science, both in the developed and developing worlds. A common problem with these projects is that they cost a large sum of money to build and maintain. The question then is, where does the money come from? Science diplomacy can facilitate the participation of countries in these big projects but it takes much more than science diplomacy to fund such large-scale facilities. 

VijayRaghavan: The poorest of the poor must be exposed to the best of world science and must have an education that allows them to dream to become a deep-sea explorer, an astronaut, a mathematician, or go to CERN. Massive training programmes in basic science and mathematics at the school and college level are needed. Then we will have bright leaders of the future from developing countries and not just from the West. 

Cristina Serra


Willie Ganda is the director of research development and innovation for the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development in Zimbabwe. He holds a master in business administration (Edinburgh Business School, Heriot Watt University) and a master of philosophy in engineering for sustainable development (Cambridge University, UK). He has also worked in consultancy, manufacturing and academia.

Zafra Lerman, a chemist, science educator and humanitarian, is the president of the Malta Conferences Foundation, which uses science as a bridge to peace in the Middle East. Lerman holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and conducted research at Cornell and Northwestern universities in the United States, as well as at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, Switzerland. She developed an innovative and internationally recognized approach to teaching science through the arts.

Sergio Jorge Pastrana has been the foreign secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences (CAS) since 1996. He is a member of the advisory commission on international relations of the Minister for Science, Technology, and Environment of Cuba. He has been involved in the establishment and coordination of international programs of cooperation of CAS since 1975.

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, a 2010 TWAS Fellow, is the secretary of the Indian Department of Biotechnology. He is distinguished professor and former director of The National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India. He received the Padma Shri prize, the fourth highest civilian award in the Republic of India (2013).