Science diplomacy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Science diplomacy is a process by which states represent themselves and their interests in the international arena[1] and describes scientific collaborations among nations, international organizations and non-state actors to address common problems. Science diplomacy has become an umbrella term to describe a number of formal or informal technical, research-based, academic or engineering exchanges. The concept is of relatively recent origin: attempts to define and classify practices as science diplomacy date from the beginning of the 21st century.[2] Before the term became popular, science diplomacy initiatives were often called “smart power” or “soft power” by those in the field.[3] Science diplomacy can be seen as a sub-field of international relations[4][5][6] and typically involves at some level interactions between scholars and officials involved in diplomacy,[7] although whether scientist diplomats or diplomat scientists are more effective is an open question.[8]


Science diplomacy as a discourse draws the attention of multiple actors who present diverse interpretations, while it is unclear if and how the actual policies and associated organizations live up to expectations placed on science diplomacy.[9] The term science diplomacy gained popularity during the Obama administration.[10][11] Today, historians explore earlier forms and developments of science diplomacy,[12] while the debate on contemporary science diplomacy initiatives is attended by researchers who treat it as an empirical object as well as by actors who are or have been involved in science diplomacy practices: These are career diplomats, science counsellors/advisers, or experts to national and international decision-making bodies and politicians.

There exists neither a clear-cut definition of science diplomacy nor a consensus on science diplomacy's stakeholders, instruments and activities. The definition is not based on analytical categories but draws its meaning from a compilation of different narratives, approaches and ideas of changing and sometimes contested relations between science and foreign policy and the evolution of diplomacy and international relations per se.[13][14][15][16] Along with e.g. economic, digital, cultural, or para-diplomacy, science diplomacy can be understood as a subcategory of the so-called new diplomacy, as opposed to the traditional diplomacy known to date.[17][18][19][20][21] Instead of showcasing military power in international relations, public relations have become the core of public diplomacy as a strategic trigger to position a nation, with policy branding serving as a tool of science diplomacy.[22]

In 2010, the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have coined a widely used theoretical framework. Their definition of science diplomacy describes three main types of activities:[23]

  • “Science in diplomacy”: Science can provide advice to inform and support foreign policy objectives
  • “Diplomacy for science”: Diplomacy can facilitate international scientific cooperation
  • "Science for diplomacy”: Scientific cooperation can improve international relations

However, placing focus on these categories can lead to an underrepresentation of the use of science for competitive purposes and mystifies science as an overall collaborative, rationalizing and complexity-reducing enterprise.[24][25][26] The theoretical framework of science diplomacy is currently under scrutiny, as it grapples with the tension between idealistic goals and practical demands in an era characterised by new conflicts and global crises. The majority of critics who have examined the have highlighted the significant vulnerability of science as a public good.[27]


International negotiations on the environment, global health crises, geopolitical power politics, and intelligence gathering are not recent concerns. International affairs and science diplomacy have a long history together. Forms of science diplomacy were apparent in the great voyages of exploration and colonization brought with them science-based diplomacy and influence.[28]

In the interwar period, science advisory boards were installed worldwide. In Australia, this was based on the recommendation of Sir Frank Heath to the Australian Government in 1926. Heath was the Secretary of the UK Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (1916-1927) and came to Australia in 1926 to advise the Australian Government on how to set up a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research as part of his suggestions for the reconstitution of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry. The Australian Government agreed, and appointed Frank Lidgett McDougall its Scientific Liaison Officer in London in 1927 to deal with questions of scientific progress and policy.[29]

Notable developments in science diplomacy also arose as the result of scientific conferences and featured the creation of international organizations. In the 19th century, the increasing specialization of scientific disciplines prompted experts from different states to achieve more coordination. International meetings were organized to discuss the standardization of scientific methods, practices, nomenclature and units. The International Association of Academies (IAA) was created in 1899 as a result of such efforts. At that time, European scientists played formal or informal diplomatic roles by using their networks to gain competitive advantage in international discussions on the colonization of distant territories, such as during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.[30] By the end of World War I, experts from the academies of the Entente Powers reorganized the IAA to deliberately exclude their colleagues from the Triple Alliance, especially German scientists, who had massively supported military actions, including by signing the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three. The IAA`s successor, the International Research Council (IRC), was formed in 1919 and succeeded in keeping German scientists at margin. There were attempts at restablishing contacts with them, particularly through transforming the IRC into the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) in 1931.[31] However, the rise of nazism and the onset of World War II compromised international cooperation in the Global North. Durable links were only re-established when the war was over.[32]

American stamp of 1955 in allusion to the program Atoms for Peace

The first major post-World War II science-based diplomatic initiative was the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission to stop an atomic arms race.[33] Its initiative failed, the Cold War begun, and the United States developed a separate fission energy diplomatic program, the 'Atoms for Peace' initiative.[34] It provided the basis for the founding of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957.[35] However, the United States was far from being the only state pursuing diplomatic initiatives related to either nuclear weapons or the peaceful use of nuclear energy. For example, Atoms for Peace and the 1954 Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapons test contributed to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs intensifying its diplomatic activities on nuclear issues as part of a wider range of science-related activities, including initiating a science attaché program in 1954 and creating a dedicated Science Division in 1958.[36] In 1961, John F. Kennedy established a science and technology cooperation agreement with Japan following appeals to repair the "broken dialogue" between the two countries` intellectual communities after World War II. That agreement helped round out a tenuous relationship at the time rooted only in security concerns.[37] Yet, even in the immediate post-World War II period, there were examples of US-Japan exchange, such as in the co-production and cooperation between Japanese scientists and American science administrators in the founding of the Science Council of Japan.[38]

The Cold War involved the development of strategic scientific relations as a way to promote scientific cooperation to the extent that it could hedge against diplomatic failures and reduce the potential for conflict without neglecting hegemonic interests.[39] The scientific exchanges between the United States and the then Soviet Union throughout the Cold War provide a well-known example of science diplomacy. Collaborations linked the two Cold War rivals when official diplomatic connections were stalled. However, scientific exchanges also offered them an opportunity for intelligence gathering, including in Europe.[40] The emergence of blocs during the Cold War also saw the deployment of technology as a means of influencing other countries in areas such as space exploration, geography, or the development of fission reactors and weapons, and technical assistance programs flourished.[41][42]

However, developing countries also engaged in technology diplomacy as part of cross-bloc competition, such as the People’s Republic of China using everything from the development of new flood control techniques in the 1950s to the launch of its first artificial satellite in 1970 as part of its “people’s diplomacy” strategies. Such science-related outreach was an important part of China’s foreign relations during the decades before its entry into the United Nations in 1971 and accompanying rapid expansion in its normalized diplomatic relations with other countries.[43]Henry Kissinger requested, and took, several science initiatives to his talks with China. Scientists featured prominently in the early exchanges and initiatives that were a part of the Sino-American rapprochement process leading to normalization of relations in 1979. Exchanges related to science and technology were explicitly mentioned in the Shanghai Communiqué.[44] This example, as well as the increasing participation of recently independent countries in international technoscientific affairs, illustrate that the 1970s brought fundamental transitions in international scientific collaboration.[45]

Science diplomacy and international organizations[edit]

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation

Science diplomacy involves the promotion of a country's interests and/or it is taken to involve the meeting of global challenges and needs. Science as a tool for diplomacy has been used for several decades by many countries around the world.[46][47] However, international organizations are also relevant promoters and actors of science diplomacy. Science diplomacy can be seen as a form of networked and transnational governance,[48][49] including via the United Nations system, especially via bodies such as UNESCO.[50] Through partnerships with international science unions and national science members, also the ICSU focuses resources and tools towards the development of scientific solutions to the world's challenges such as climate change, sustainable development or polar research.[51]

Two international organizations with a scientific mission are widely considered as models for science diplomacy: the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, created in 1954 following a series of meetings, UNESCO hearings and a formal ratification by 12 initial member nations. At present, CERN is run by 20 European member states,[52] but many non-European countries are also involved in different ways. Scientists from some 608 institutes and universities around the world have used CERN's facilities in 2023.[53] Another example is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an engineering megaproject in France, which will be the world's largest magnetic confinement experiment when it begins plasma physics operations. ITER began in 1985 as a Reagan–Gorbachev initiative with the equal participation of the Soviet Union, the European Atomic Energy Community, the United States, and Japan, with the post-9/11era posing a big challenge on its continuation.[54] Another science diplomacy actor is the African Scientific Institute, created in 1967 to help African scientists reach others through published materials, conferences, seminars and provide tools for those who lack them.[55] And in 1996, countries with interests in the Arctic came together to form the Arctic Council to discuss sustainable development and environmental protection.[56][57]

In some cases, science diplomacy is not the obvious prelimiary goal of an international body but used as an important tool. The European Union fosters science collaboration as a way to make diplomacy through "parallel means".[58] Several EU-funded projects are currently exploring and conducting research on the topic of science diplomacy. Another example is the intergovernmental military alliance of NATO, which in 1958 established a Science Committee and the position of a Science Advisor.[59] NATO officals sought to use the promotion of science as a diplomatic channel (or "backchannel"), especially in critical moments of the alliance’s history.[60]

Science diplomacy and non-state actors[edit]

Non-state actors who are not connected with governments have also practiced science diplomacy. For example, in 1957, philanthropist Cyrus Eaton hosted a meeting in Pugwash, Canada.[61] The stimulus for the gathering was a Manifesto issued on 9 July 1955 by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein which called upon scientists of all political persuasions to assemble to discuss the threat posed to civilization by the advent of thermonuclear weapons.[62] The meetings eventually grew and gathered the attention of high level government officials. Since then, scientists have continued to gather at the Pugwash Conferences. Such informal, non-governmental initiatives illustrate Track II science diplomacy.[63] A specific form of Track II science diplomacy is activism and advocacy "from below" the elitist sphere of government advice,[64] including campaigns by scientists and physicians acting beyond state regulation and outside of official diplomatic arenas.[65]

Similar to the initiative of non-state actors, non-profit organizations exercise science diplomacy practices. CRDF Global, in partnership with the U.S. Department of State, launched the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST).[66] initiative in 2010 in Egypt with follow-up meetings in Malaysia and Morocco in 2011. In addition to the GIST Initiative, CRDF Global has been active in the United States and in the Middle East on promoting science diplomacy through conferences, panel discussions and programs including the Iraqi Virtual Science Library, Maghreb Virtual Science Library, and the Afghanistan Virtual Science Library. Further, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) established the Center for Science Diplomacy.[67] Its goal is to use science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding by providing a forum for scientists, policy analysts, and policy-makers to share information and explore collaborative opportunities. In March 2012, the center launched the quarterly publication Science & Diplomacy.[68] Others non-profit organizations, such as the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) have dedicated an entire portion of their website for science diplomacy related articles and events.

The Malta Conferences Foundation seeks to provide a bridge to peace in the Middle East through science diplomacy.[69] Starting in 2001, Zafra Lerman began working with the American Chemical Society Subcommittee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights to develop a scientific conference that would bring together researchers from many different, often mutually hostile, nations in the Middle East so they could cooperatively work toward solving problems facing the region. With support from the American Chemical Society (ACS), International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC - England), and the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker, the first conference was held on the island of Malta in December 2003.[70][71] The organizers followed up by hosting a second meeting two years later, Malta II.[72] Lerman led the initiative to continue with the conferences and founded the Malta Conferences Foundation to support them. She secured the support of UNESCO, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded Zafra Lerman the 2014 Award for Science Diplomacy.[73]

Science diplomacy in the 21st century[edit]

Many of the global challenges related to health, economic growth, and climate change lay at the intersection of science and international relations.[74] There are numerous patterns via which scientific and technological advances influence international relations, including as a juggernaut or escaped genie with rapid and wide-ranging ramifications for the international system; as a game-changer and a conveyor of advantage and disadvantage to different actors in the international system; as a source of risks, issues and problems that must be addressed and managed by the international community; as key dimensions or enablers of international macro phenomena; as instruments of foreign policy or sources of technical information for the management of an ongoing international regime; as the subject of projects and institutions whose planning, design, implementation and management provide grist for the mill of international relations and diplomacy.[75]

In the 21st century, there is a long list of specific themes for science diplomacy to address, including “the rising risks and dangers of climate change, a spread of infectious diseases, increasing energy costs, migration movements, and cultural clashes”.[47] Other areas of interest include space exploration;[76] the exploration of fundamental physics (e.g., CERN[77] and ITER[78]); the management of the polar regions;[4][79] health research;[80] the oil and mining sectors;[81] fisheries;[82] and international security,[83] including global cybersecurity,[84] as well as enormous geographic areas, such as the transatlantic[48] and Indo-Pacific regions.[85] Increasingly, science diplomacy has come to be seen as a multilateral endeavor to address both global challenges and the matter of global goods, via science internationals (such as the Malta Conferences[86]); international NGOs, especially UN bodies; and various science-policy interfaces,[4] such as the U.S. National Academies system.

Science diplomacy suggests a means for helping manage paradigmatic and disruptive change. For instance, the sheer scale of the problem of climate change has caused researchers to call for the reinvention of science communication in order to address humanity's cognitive limits in coping with such a crisis,[87] with the International Panel on Climate Change alone constituting a science-diplomacy nexus.[4] Especially within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, the first calls to begin seeing science and its products as global public goods which should be tasked to fundamentally improve the human condition, especially in countries which are facing catastrophic change, are being made.[88] While both science and technology create new risks in and of themselves, they can also alert humanity of risks, such as global warming, in both cases transforming commerce, diplomacy, intelligence, investment, and war.[75] Science diplomacy challenges the way international relations operates as a field of human endeavor, presenting a ‘boundary problem’ involving actors from different social worlds.[89]

In 2009, President Barack Obama called for partnership during his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, Egypt.[90] These partnerships would include a greater focus on engagement of the Muslim world through science, technology, and innovation connecting scientists from the United States to scientists in Muslim-majority countries.[91] Other strategies that evolved at that time involved the development of scientific relations between historical or potential rival countries or blocs as a way to promote scientific cooperation to the extent that it could hedge against diplomatic failures and reduce the potential for conflict.[11][92][93][94] On March 12, 2010, Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA) and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) introduced the Global Science Program for Security, Competitiveness, and Diplomacy Act,[95] which proposed an increase in the application of science and scientific engagement in US foreign policy.

In December 2018, the “Madrid Declaration on Science Diplomacy” was signed by a group of high-level experts. It proclaims a common vision of science diplomacy in the future, emphasises the benefits science diplomacy can bring to tackling the global challenges of our time and outlines the principles needed to foster science diplomacy worldwide.[96]

Science diplomacy, health and pandemics[edit]

Global organizations, researchers, public health officials, countries, government officials, and clinicians have worked together to create effective measures of infection control and subsequent treatment. They continue to do so through sharing of resources, research data, ideas, and by putting into effect laws and regulations that can further advance scientific research. Without the collaborative efforts of such entities, the world would not have the vaccines and treatments we now possess for diseases that were once considered deadly such as tuberculosis, tetanus, polio, influenza, etc. Historically, science diplomacy has proved successful in diseases such as SARS, Ebola, Zika and continues to be relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic today.

During epidemics and pandemics, vaccines and drugs are an effective method for reducing incidence and mortality from diseases. Economically underdeveloped countries often face obstacles that hinder timely development and deployment of vaccines during times of crises, including structural barriers (which make transport more difficult) and monetary barriers. As a result, the collaboration with international institutions are important to develop and distribute treatments that can mitigate the effects of the outbreak. In the past, institutions including large pharmaceutical corporations have donated vaccine doses to underdeveloped countries, and charitable organizations have funded trials to test the efficacy of the vaccine.[97][98] These collaborations are exemplified in various nations’ responses to the malaria, rotavirus, HIV/Aids, HPV, and COVID-19 outbreaks.[99]

Science diplomacy and space[edit]

With the rise of privatized space exploration and the growing competition with nations across the globe in the new age space race, space diplomacy refers to a globalized effort by scientists, national officials, and private corporations to reach a consensus on what is safe, effective, and sustainable space travel. In addition to possible space jurisdictions to each country interested in space travel, science diplomacy and space, or space diplomacy, can involve considerations towards environmental pollution or a set of international laws and legislations, such as the Outer Space Treaty.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Adamson, Matthew; Lalli, Roberto (2021), Global Perspectives on Science Diplomacy, Centaurus 63: 1,
  • Flink, Tim and Nicolas Rüffin (2019), The current state of the art of science diplomacy. Handbook on Science and Public Policy,
  • Hamblin, Jacob Darwin (2021), The Wretched Atom: America's Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology, Oxford University Press.
  • Kraft, Alison; Sachse, Carola (2019), Science, (Anti-) Communism and Diplomacy: The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in the Early Cold War, Brill.
  • Krasnyak, Olga; Ruffini, Pierre-Bruno (2020), Science Diplomacy, Oxford Bibiliographies,
  • Lund Jacobsen, Lif; Olšáková, Doubravka (2020), “Diplomats in Science Diplomacy: Promoting Scientific and Technological Collaboration in International Relations,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 43(4), 465-472.
  • Robinson, Sam, et al. (2023), The Globalization of Science Diplomacy in the early 1970s: A historical Exploration, Science and Public Policy, 50(4), 749–758,
  • Ruffini, Pierre-Bruno (2017), Science and Diplomacy: A new Dimension of International Relations, Springer.
  • Rungius, C; Flink, Tim (2020) Romancing science for global solutions: on narratives and interpretative schemas of science diplomacy. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 7, 102.
  • Turchetti, Simone (2018), Greening the Alliance. The Diplomacy of NATO’s Science and Environmental Initiatives. Chicago University Press.
  • Turchetti, Simone, et al. (2020), Just Needham to Nixon? On Writing the History of “Science Diplomacy”, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 50 (4): 323–339, doi:
  • Turekian, Vaughan (2018), "The evolution of science diplomacy", Global Policy 95(3), 5–7,
  • Wolfe, Audra J. (2020). Freedom's Laboratory. The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science. JHU Press.

External links[edit]