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Vaughan Turekian: The positive power of science diplomacy

Vaughan Turekian: The positive power of science diplomacy

Even small nations can use science diplomacy to build connections with the global research community, says Vaughan C. Turekian, director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

The use of science diplomacy has been gaining momentum in developed nations, applied to fields as diverse as climate change, health and the search for the Higgs boson. But also smaller nations still developing their scientific strength can use science diplomacy to step onto the global stage and bring their contribution to international issues, by providing policy makers with the right scientific advice on common urgent matters, says Vaughan Turekian, whose work in the field has had a global influence.

Turekian is the chief international officer at The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and director of its Center for Science Diplomacy. He is also editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy, an open access journal published quarterly by the center. With experience in areas such as environment, health, science and science policy, he has served as special assistant to the U.S. under-secretary of state for global affairs.

Turekian will be in Trieste from 8 to 13 June, as one of the co-organizers of the AAAS-TWAS short course on science and diplomacy. The event is part of a science diplomacy programme launched by the two organizations in 2011. The 2014 course will expose participants to critical contemporary international policy issues relating to science, technology, environment and health. In addition, it will provide concrete examples of how the right scientific and technical advice can help forge international policies and contribute to peacekeeping processes.

Turekian’s last visit to Trieste, in 2013, was during the first AAAS-TWAS workshop on innovative energy policies for sustainable development, which has featured the participation of about 20 students from developing countries and a group of experts in the field. On that occasion, he pointed at the importance of science diplomacy as part of international agendas, especially in developing countries.

In a recent interview with Cristina Serra from the TWAS Public information Office, Turekian explained how even small and developing nations can play a role worldwide by making use of science and diplomacy.

Science diplomacy is becoming increasingly important in international policy. When was it first applied to help solve controversies among nations?

Efforts to engage in international collaborations through science and technology have been going on for many years. In the U.S., the first explicit use of science and diplomacy involved Japan, in the 1960s. A few years earlier, in the late 1950s, Edwin O. Reischauer, who was a professor at Harvard University and an expert on Japan, wrote an article in the influential foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs where spoke about the need to “… to fix the broken dialogue with Japan”.  Professor Reischauer eventually became the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo during the Kennedy Administration. And when Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda came to Washington to meet President John F. Kennedy for the first time, in 1961, the key objective was to try to figure out how to build stronger relationships between the societies. That was the first example of a political use of science. As a result, the two countries started building a scientific exchange, which included the establishment of science offices, both in the U.S. and Japan.

How did science diplomacy change, during the past decades, to adjust itself to a rapidly changing world?

From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the world was highly polarized between two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There was certainly a lot of competition in fields like space research. However, there was also a lot of collaboration in science, especially after President Ronald Regan stated that science and health could be the stage where the USA and USSR could cooperate and build bilateral relationships. During the Cold War years, scientists started talking to each other to debate about science and security issues. They also acquired a better understanding of the real capacities and capability of the other side, realizing about the potential danger of themes such as nuclear power and others. That played a very important role. Today we have a much less polarized world, where big rivalries – though still existing in certain areas – are not so common, and where some regional, historical smaller rivalries play a role. Therefore, the role of individual scientists is increasingly important.

In order to achieve results, do experts in this field need to follow a protocol, or is a certain degree of flexibility allowed?

To get good results you need scientists, first – scientists who want to be involved in activities that are not always strictly scientific, and who might be associated with some risks. Scientists who are ready to engage in a communication that sometimes can be difficult. International science is carried out by scientists who are driven by good science, who are interested in working with people or in places where the scientific questions are interesting, and the scientific collaboration can yield good results. But when it comes to move from science to its implications for diplomacy and foreign policy, it’s something where governments, or larger organizations such as academies like TWAS and associations like AAAS, proving their capacity to build bridges through science.

How can developing countries, as well as small countries, be influential in science diplomacy, having limited financial resources, little political weight and, sometimes, few scientists?

It’s a legitimate question and part of the answer applies to TWAS. TWAS is among the organizations that are able to provide the venue and the opportunities for scientists from developing countries to engage with other scientists around the world. TWAS’s role is to build those links and to engage in the international scene on behalf of those scientists with partner institutions in foreign countries. It can also empower developing world scientists to engage with international policy leaders. As far as small, but developed countries, my favourite example is New Zealand, which is very active in using science to project its influence beyond its borders. New Zealand lacks diplomatic missions in countries around the world. But many of its scientists work abroad, thus creating an important network and representation of this nation within those countries, in the developing and developed world. This is a very important and effective use of science and diplomacy, because these scientists become an important communication pathway between New Zealand and other nations.

Can you provide an example of successful science diplomacy action that has involved a developing country?

Success has many forms. The USA-Cuba cooperation in science has been one of the areas where collaboration has been strong and necessary, despite the fact that political collaboration has remained difficult. Cuba and the U.S. managed to collaborate in the field of marine science, on issues that were important enough for both sides. And there are other areas open to cooperation: atmospheric science, for example, and prevention of damages from storms that affect both Cuba and the U.S. 

Could science diplomacy be used to express national power or influence, that is, employed to damage one nation in particular?

If science diplomacy is done effectively, it is a cooperative and collaborative activity, a true partnership. And it has to be done with mutual interest and mutual understanding. In doing so, it helps both sides to understand and appreciate, if not embrace, the limitations that the other party has, in terms of political, financial and human resources. A good example is a scientific paper that was published by the journal Oceanology, co-authored by scientists from the U.S. and Cuba. This publication looks not only at the ocean and at marine research, but also at the political barriers that limit that research and potential ways to overcome them.

Do you think that developed nations have a different use of science diplomacy with respect to developing nations?

More and more countries, both developed and developing, are investing in science and technology. But if we consider developed countries and the use they make of science in foreign policy, we probably come up with three drivers:

  1. the role of science and scientific advice in traditional diplomacy, in building relationships, and diplomacy and security;
  2. the role of science in trade and economic development;
  3. the role of science in development and in informing development policies.


Among the concerns that affect least developed countries, three is prominent: these nations often lack the capacity to invest in high-tech science, in computer science and in information and communication technologies. Therefore, they are necessarily left behind. However, they can still play a role by means of science and diplomacy: they can attract scientists and avoid brain drain. With this respect, more developing countries are building a well-oriented policy to attract top scientists. TWAS is an ally, in this respect.

Are there scientific fields that, more than others, can be addressed with science diplomacy interventions: medicine, earth sciences, social sciences?

There are big themes in science and diplomacy. One is building large scale infrastructures: organizations like SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) have infrastructures that are built around the cutting-edge science. That’s one area.

A second area includes trans-boundary issues, which are important because they sometimes involve the domestic priorities of a country, like air pollution, biodiversity conservation and others, but other times they involve also political issues, as well as issues that require technical skills. I’m thinking, for example, of scientific but also political concerns relative to the protection of the regions where gorillas live, which embrace several nations in central Africa.

What about medicine and health?

Let me answer with an example that takes into account, for example, non-communicable diseases. Let’s assume that country A hosts a great number of citizens from country B. And let’s assume that the citizens from country B suffer from a specific disease that is less frequent in the local population. A cooperation plan between the two governments, A and B, would be highly desirable to figure out how much part of the disease is from genetic origin, and how much from the environment. That would be a great example of health diplomacy.

TWAS and AAAS have partnered in a science and diplomacy initiative aimed at providing information and expertise on this matter. This coming June, TWAS will host a short course on these themes. What outcomes may we expect from this initiative?

The short course in Trieste is a great example of TWAS providing the opportunity, the venue and resources to help scientists and policymakers from developing countries to get close to each other and to link to a broader community of scientists and diplomats than the one in the developed world.

I look to at least three major outcomes. First, the initiative is connecting science and diplomacy to two organizations that have access to a very broad scientific community: AAAS, mostly in the U.S. and developed world, and TWAS, mostly in developing world. The second outcome is that it provides scientists from the developing world with the opportunity to build networks not only with other developing world scientists, but also with developed world scientists and policymakers, which is critical. Third, it provides TWAS and AAAS with the opportunity to learn from a wider variety of individuals what the key issues are when it comes to science and policy, and how this affects their regions or their fields. All together, these three results may help guide the two organizations in orienting their future actions to better service those communities in the future.


Turekian's seminar was part of the TWAS Science Diplomacy programme, which includes lectures, seminars, workshops, international meetings, and a regional prize. Other seminars and lectures have been held by World Academy of Art & Science President Ivo Šlaus, New South Wales Chief Scientist and Engineer Mary O'Kane and Paul van Gardingen, the director of the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Programme at the University of Edinburgh, UK. The original announcement for the seminar is online, and a flyer announcing Turekian's 2013 seminar is available below. This interview was done as part of the programme's energy policy workshop. Turekian also returned to Trieste for the AAAS-TWAS summer course in 2014.