Key Principles Emerge in Health Science Diplomacy

As health science diplomacy becomes further established as an effective way to bring nations together to address local and regional health challenges , key principles are taking shape, said Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS and the executive publisher of the journal Science, at the sixth World Science Forum, held this year in Rio de Janeiro.

"Science diplomacy is now a force in global health, science policy and foreign policy," he said in a 26 November roundtable discussion on the nexus between health science, policy and business. Several instructive examples come from the corner of health science diplomacy, which uses science-based approaches to address health challenges while also fostering diplomatic relations:

  • At a U.S-China meeting, addiction researchers from the two countries, studying both traditional Chinese medicine and "western" medicine, discussed strategies for making addiction treatment more effective in a local context and identified some novel, potential medication targets.
  • Several U.S. scientists traveled to Iran for the country's first international HIV/AIDS conference and determined a number of promising areas for collaboration.
  • At a joint workshop in Uganda, researchers from the United States, the United Kingdom and multiple African countries discussed the state of care of mental, neurological and substance-use disorders in Sub-Saharan Africa, and explored strategies to improve the quality and consistency of that care.

These case studies reveal some important lessons, according to Leshner. For example, all actors must be full partners, and they must focus on issues of local importance. Participating groups must also find ways to deal with disparities among their respective scientific communities. "Just spreading money around will not work," said Leshner, noting that collaboration and capacity building can — and often must — be done simultaneously.

It is also necessary to have commonly agreed-upon standards and values, such as those related to scientific ethics, intellectual property and publication or access issues. Consistency in science policies across countries has proven important, notably in embryonic stem cell research and research using animals and human volunteers. Better coordination of funding policies and streamlined bureaucracies are critical too, said Leshner, noting that U.S. researchers, for example, spend 42 percent of research time on administrative tasks.

A variety of groups, including the World Health Organization, the Heads of International Research Organizations (HIROs), and the Global Research Council (GRC) are working on these issues. The GRC, for example, which includes the heads of research agencies representing over 40 countries or economies, has convened two international meetings to discuss issues such as research integrity and access to data and publications.

The sixth biennial World Science Forum convened participants from over 100 countries for four days of presentations and discussions under the theme "Science for Global Sustainable Development." The meeting was organized by the Brazilian Academy in partnership with UNESCO, the International Council for Science, AAAS and the Hungarian Academy of Science.

Also presenting at the Forum were Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt, who described an urgent need for better approaches to sustainable management of natural resources, and Vaughan Turekian, AAAS' chief international officer and director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. Through its quarterly publication, Science & Diplomacy, and other efforts, the Center aims "to build a stronger intellectual basis for issues at the interface of science and diplomacy," Turekian said.

AAAS' support for and participation in the World Science Forum is "part of broader effort by AAAS to continue to reinforce the importance of thinking of science as a global entity," he said.

In its closing session, the Forum issued a declaration with delegates from over 100 countries pledging to advance the use of science for global sustainable development. The declaration will now be taken forward by UNESCO as a key starting point for preliminary planning of the Post-2015 Millennium Sustainable Development Goals.