On Security, Climate, and Economic Development, Conference Sees Need for Science Diplomacy

LONDON—With relations frayed between much of the West and the Middle East, policy leaders worldwide are considering an increasingly urgent question: Do scientists and science-based government policy have a role to play in building better international relations through collaboration on research and science education?

It was a central question when high-level scientists and science policy leaders convened for two days of discussions hosted by the Royal Society and co-sponsored by AAAS. The talks ranged widely—from policy on security and economic development to resources and environment of the Arctic—but all focused on promise and potential pitfalls of science diplomacy and international science collaboration.


Razley bin Mohd Nordin

Razley bin Mohd Nordin, director general for Science and Technology at the Organization of the Islamic Conference, called it "one of the most important issues of present days—diplomacy as the way for confidence-building and peace-keeping and the role of science in diplomacy in bridging the civilizations, cultures, and religions through centuries."


Lorna Casselton



Alan I. Leshner

Even during the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, French and British scientists maintained working contacts, said Lorna Casselton, foreign secretary of the Royal Society. Today, she said, science remains a means of "rising above political and diplomatic affairs."

"The discussions in London made clear that science diplomacy is a tremendously timely concept," added Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science. "So many of our great challenges have science and technology at their cores, and they cannot be solved by any one country working alone.

And scientific collaboration allows non-governmental organizations to help build constructive relationships among peoples of the world, even when governmental ties are strained."

The London meeting, held 1-2 June, was evidence of a growing worldwide interest in employing science diplomacy more systematically, and with greater impact. It attracted nearly 200 speakers and participants from nearly two dozen countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South and North America, and Europe. The meeting was opened by Lord Martin Rees, the eminent cosmologist and president of the Royal Society. Among the speakers who followed were prominent researchers, NGO leaders, and top government science advisers from nations such as Brazil, Canada, China, Europe, Japan, India, Pakistan, Rwanda, and the United States.

The meeting at the Royal Society provided a forum for scientists and policy experts representing diverse regions and backgrounds to consider global needs and how science diplomacy might address them. They also discussed the meaning of science diplomacy, with speakers detailing the many forms it can take—and some stressing that nations should not use science as a tool to advance geopolitical objectives.

The emerging sense of possibility for science diplomacy was underscored when U.S. President Barack Obama used his 4 June address in Cairo to announce scientific research and education initiatives with the Muslim world that will focus on health, technology, job-creation, and additional scientific collaboration. Others say science diplomacy will be critical in the run-up to the December climate change conference in Copenhagen.

Journalists are interested, too: While in London, Leshner and Ehsan Masood, who has written extensively on science and Islam for Nature and other publications, were interviewed at length on BBC Radio 3's "Night Waves" talk show. Leshner also took part in a news briefing on the prospects for science diplomacy in the Arctic.

The Growing Appeal of Science Diplomacy

To be sure, many academic institutions, NGOs, and governmental bodies are already engaged in range of efforts that seek to use science and technology cooperation as a foundation for constructive international relations.


John Beddington and Nina Fedoroff

Nina Fedoroff, science adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told attendees how a small team of young scientists serving as AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows at the State Department led efforts to create a virtual science library for Iraqi scholars and students. Canada is helping to train science journalists from such nations as Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan. The Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), now under construction in Jordan, is expected to draw researchers from around the world for work in environmental science, biology, and other fields. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has required development of 340 facilities around the world to monitor the earth and skies for the subtle markers of a nuclear test.

China now has 130 S&T diplomatic staff at its embassies and offices in 45 countries, said Chen Futao, minister counselor for science and technology in China's U.K. embassy. The Royal Society is working closely with African science associations, Casselton said. And the U.K.'s Foreign Office is about to appoint a chief science adviser, said John Beddington, the chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government.


Sigi Gruber

Europe has made extensive commitment to international science collaboration through measures such as the Lisbon Agenda, said Sigi Gruber, who heads a European Commission unit responsible for tracking worldwide S&T developments. Still, she said, with 27 nations, the European effort is "very fragmented." Last year's "Strategic European Framework for International Science and Technology Cooperation" is one element of the effort to make Europe's science engagement more integrated and to extend the cooperative relationships to the rest of the world, Gruber explained.

To promote the understanding and strategic mobilization of science for diplomacy, AAAS last year opened its Center for Science Diplomacy to serve as a hub for the international science, science policy, and foreign policy communities.

The Urgency of Global Challenges

What is driving the interest in science diplomacy and international S&T cooperation? Several speakers cited the urgency of challenges looming in the first half of the 21st century and beyond.

Africa's population is expected to double in the next 50 years, Beddington said; Asia's population will grow at nearly the same rate. By 2030, he said, world food production must go up by 50%, water demand is forecast to rise by over 30%, and energy demand will rise 50% by 2030.

Currently, the 57 nations in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have almost 22% of the world's population, but generate only 6.8% of the world's annual gross domestic product. Of those nations, 10 generate 74% of the OIC's total annual income, Nordin said. Meanwhile, he added, 21 OIC members are classified as "highly indebted poor countries." Out of the world's 50 least-developed countries, 22 are OIC states.

Their problems are caused and compounded by a lack of economic horsepower, he suggested. Among those 22, he said, "almost all of them depend on the exports of a few non-oil primary commodities, mostly agricultural commodities, for their growth and development." Seventeen OIC counties are classified as fuel-exporting countries, but they are "heavily dependent" on that narrow band of economic activity.

"International science and engineering collaboration are going to be completely essential," said Beddington. "It's not going to come naturally. It's going to come from lots and lots of work. Science diplomacy is going to be a part of that process.... The consequences of not doing this are too large."

Climate change, said Fedoroff, "is a wake-up call to the fact that we live in a world without borders."

The Arctic: Center of Conflict or "Pole of Peace"?

The Arctic is a region where many of the climate issues—and an array of potential conflicts—have already emerged.

Warming in the northern latitudes is causing dramatic environmental and social changes. Summer ice in the past two years has been at record low levels, and forecasts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that trend could persist for decades. But as ice disappears, newly exposed land and water absorb more heat. That warming changes ocean currents, the ocean's chemical composition, and the distribution of marine life. As the tundra thaws, it releases methane that adds further to the load of climate-changing greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. It is a potentially devastating feedback loop.

Meanwhile, new research by the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the area above the Arctic Circle, which covers 6% of the Earth's surface, holds 13% of its as-yet-undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas.

Arctic experts say the disappearance of ice in the next few decades could open the region to an international race for those and other resources. With that competition could come conflict over land-claims and sea lanes.


Paul Berkman

These are not merely regional issues. Because the health of North and South Poles has a global impact, these issues illustrate the "challenges and opportunities we face as a civilization," said Paul Berkman, head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Programme at the University of Cambridge.

A generation ago, Berkman said, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev urged an era of international cooperation in the Arctic; Gorbachev envisioned the North Pole as a "pole of peace." However, with the diminishing sea ice there are indications that the Arctic could slide into a new era of jurisdictional conflicts, increasingly severe clashes over the extraction of natural resources, and the emergence of a new "great game" among the global powers.

Despite the importance of the region and the looming potential for conflict, there is only a "patchwork" of mechanisms for governing the Arctic, said Diana Wallis, vice president of the European Parliament.

"The structures of decision-making are not up to the challenge," Wallis said. "This is where we need to do our homework. This is where we need some science."

Berkman looked to history for a model for coherent governance for the Arctic. A half century ago, in the midst of the Cold War, 12 nations sent representatives to Washington, D.C. to sign the Antarctic Treaty, which successfully set aside almost 10% of the Earth as a zone of peace with the interests of science and the progress of all humanity Nearly four dozen nations, representing two-thirds of of our global society, have now signed the treaty. (This year's Antarctic Treaty Summit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., coinciding with 50th anniversary of the 1 December 1959 signing of the Antarctic Treaty, will be an international opportunity to further investigate these science diplomacy lessons, Berkman said.)

Today in the Arctic, the coastal sea floor may fall under the jurisdiction of Arctic nations, Berkman said, but the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas "applies to the entire Arctic Basin." The law of the seas could be a starting point for a framework that builds on the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean as an undisputed international space, beyond the jurisdictions of the Arctic coastal states and legally separated from the underlying sea floor.

In governing the Arctic, Berkman said, science has a dual role: to understand ecosystem dynamics and to provide monitoring and verification needed to support durable international cooperation. "The simple truth," he said, "is that all activities in the Arctic Ocean are jeopardized without coherent strategies for peace and stability."

Bridging the West and the Developing World

One of the fundamental objectives for some advocates of science diplomacy is to build more constructive relations between the developed world and the developing world. But several speakers at the Royal Society conference noted a problem: It is relatively easy for states of near-equal development to collaborate on research. But when one nation is developed and the other is not, the developing nation is more likely to become dependent.


Mohamed Hassan

Mohamed Hassan, the head of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, was among those who identified a lack of science capacity as a basic problem. Without strong science education at every level, without a research and development system, without a legal underpinning, the scientific enterprise can't grow and thrive.

Nordin offered an example: Most of the OIC states, especially those that are least developed, "failed to allocate sufficient appropriations to science and technology activities," he said. Total R&D spending as a percentage of GDP in the United States is 2.66%, roughly the world average, but in the OIC states it averages 0.66%. In Jordan, it's 6.33%, Nordin said, but in Senegal, it's 0.10%.

A similar perspective was offered by Atta-ur Rahman, coordinator general of the OIC's Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation, also known as COMSTECH. In the Arab world, he said, 12.2% of GDP is spent on health, 7.1% on defense—and 0.2% on R&D.

Many countries lack the capacity to educate and train young scientists to the master's degree or Ph.D. level, Hassan said. The lack of capacity is even evident at times when the leading figures of some nations travel to regional or international meetings on science-related issues. When they don't participate in the discussions, he said, that suggests a lack of understanding.

Rahman, who earlier served as Pakistan's minister of both education and of science and technology, stressed that the nations must help themselves. Others, however, that helping the developing nations build capacity should be a priority for science diplomacy.

Romain Murenzi, Rwanda's minister of science and technology, described his nation's S&T development efforts in energy, conservation and wildlife research. But education is critical to Rwanda's policy, and the nation is working with the U.S. NGO One Laptop Per Child to distribute thousands of computers to children in a nation that, 15 years ago, was wracked by genocide.

"In four years, we expect all of our children to have access to a laptop," he said. "This means that in 15 years, this child will be completely different from us... This child will be on a level playing field with kids here."

Others stressed the need to build capacity through educational and scientific exchanges and through collaboration at international research centers and centers of excellence.

Chen Futao, the S&T minister counselor in China's U.K. embassy, said international efforts such as the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the AITER energy-from-fusion experiment, and the Human Liver Protein Program as models for future collaboration. China has developed a series of programs—in human liver proteins, traditional Chinese medicine and energy—to attract foreign research expertise.

Hassan said north-south partnerships nurtured at centers of excellence such as Nairobi-based ICIPE—the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology—could produce both excellent research and increased research capacity in the developing world

"If we have more of these centers in developing countries dealing with international problems, it would create a very good opportunity for science from developed countries and the developing world to work together," he said.

Hassan also urged partnerships between the science, policy, and development communities. "Unless these three come together," he said, "I don't feel we will have that much success with science diplomacy."

Science Diplomacy: The Hidden Risks

In some quarters, however, there are concerns that if science becomes an instrument of foreign policy, both the science and the diplomacy could suffer. And during the two days in London, talks returned several times to concerns that the term "science diplomacy," however appealing, conceals a number of risks.

If, in conventional diplomacy, "some economy with the truth" may occur, Beddington said pointedly, "this is a problem for science." Fedoroff, too, urged that the integrity of science not be compromised for diplomatic gain. But both advisers made clear that science diplomacy has much potential for constructive impact.

"Science and scientific diplomacy at every level are enormously important in filling in the knowledge chasm dividing the rich and the poor," Fedoroff said.

In fact, speakers said, science diplomacy has a number of meanings and can take place on a variety of channels. The conventions and protocols built into the scientific enterprise could help manage risks, speakers suggested.

In a talk to the conference, Jun Yanagi, director of the International Science Cooperation Division in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, laid out four dimensions of science diplomacy: using science and technology as tools of diplomacy; diplomacy used to advance science and technology projects; diplomacy based on science and research results; and science and technology as a source of "soft power," the concept developed by scholar Joseph Nye and others.

Nordin differentiated between "high" politics, where the state and military are engaged on high-priority issues, and "low" politics, which features lower-level political figures and non-governmental parties working on less urgent issues. When new ideas and values are introduced into the sphere of low politics, he said, they can eventually take root and expand into the realm of high politics.

"I call upon science societies in both the Western and Muslim world to explore the advantages of low politics science cooperation," he said.

Norman P. Neureiter, senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, acknowledged the need for semantic nuance.

To some people the word "diplomacy" implies government involvement and the use of science for a government's political purposes, Neureiter said. The term "soft power" has the word "power" in it, and that may not be the best way to characterize engagement when relations between countries are strained. And while science "engagement" has an appeal, Neureiter learned from talking to military people that "engagement" connotes military action.

Neureiter's solution: "For now, I am going to stick with 'science diplomacy'—the employment of science for building better relationships throughout the world."