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Scientific and Policy Leaders Convene in Italy to Advance Science Diplomacy

Fernanda de Oliveira Lana, a researcher and biologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, has been making waves in the field of marine biology for years. Her earlier research on silky sharks helped to create worldwide protective regulations for the species in 2011, and she has since been working at a national level with the Brazilian government and international level with the United Nations (UN) to inform marine protection policies and marine environment reporting. Through her work, she has collaborated closely with numerous policymakers, including Andrei Polejack, a Senior Technical Advisor (Ocean) with Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. This pair undertook a rather unique experience together that extends beyond the workplace – they participated in this year’s AAAS-TWAS Course on Science Diplomacy.  

The course, organized by AAAS and the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), introduces participants, largely from the Global South, to international policy issues relating to science, technology, environment, and health. Since the first course in 2014, the program has trained more than 300 emerging leaders from over 100 countries.  

AAAS TWAS course group photo
Participants in the AAAS TWAS course.

In 2021, the course changed to a participant pair model where duos from the same country – one scientist and one policymaker – participate in a series of lectures, panels, and group activities, including negotiation exercises, related to science diplomacy together. It’s an opportunity to learn valuable skills, understand each other’s perspectives, and identify ways to work with each other effectively.  

“We introduced the concept of participant pairs for the course to strengthen the bridges between the scientific and diplomatic communities, which are essential to address today’s global challenges such as climate change and food insecurity,” says Kim Montgomery, AAAS International Affairs and Science Diplomacy Director. 

Despite the fact that her training is in science and academia, de Oliveira Lana says her experiences working with Polejack and on other policy initiatives exposed her to the value of science diplomacy. “It aims to build bridges, establish agreements, resolve disputes, and maintain harmonious relations between countries,” she explains.

When Polejack approached her about the prospect of jointly applying to the AAAS-TWAS Course on Science Diplomacy, she readily agreed. “Andrei and I see the need to expand actions both in the government and academic spheres. With each one [of us] representing one of the sides, our partnership is of great value.” 

Upon being accepted to the program, they traveled to Trieste, Italy in the last week of June to participate in the course. There, 12 pairs of scientists and policymakers from 12 countries partook in a week-long training session.  

Also among the participants were Marta Neskovic and Milica Todorić from Serbia. Neskovic is a Research Fellow in ethnology and anthropology at the Institute for Political Studies in Belgrade, Serbia, where she focuses on the transmission of traditional knowledge, skill development, and contributes to national and international political processes through scientific research. Todorić works for Serbia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and acts as a representative for the UN’s Sector for Multilateral Affairs.  

The two met last year during preparations for the COP27 Conference, and fostered a strong friendship and professional relationship rooted in mutual respect, prompting them to apply together for this year’s AAAS-TWAS Course on Science Diplomacy.  

Neskovic says that a negotiation session between diplomats and scientists was one of the most enjoyable – and challenging – parts of the course for her. “It was my first time being in such a context, and I had to adapt my thought processes, reactions, and communication style accordingly,” she explains. “However, as I immersed myself in the exercise, I found it quite rewarding to discover new capabilities and areas for growth in terms of knowledge and communication skills.” 

Todorić says, as a diplomat, it was helpful for her to see the alternative perspectives and knowledge of scientists. “The most important thing that I learned is that science and diplomacy are a great match of tools, which can, among others, enable building bridges and creating partnerships, for the benefit of all,” she says. “This requires many ‘ingredients,’ but most of all, as I perceive it – to be open-minded, respectful, curious, and persistent.” 

Across the board, Todorić, Neskovic, de Oliveira Lana and Polejack all note that the opportunity for international scientific and diplomatic peers to convene and share experiences was a major benefit of the course.  

“What I loved most about it was absolutely the people and the chance to interact with pairs from all over the globe. Having experienced people around us as well as within our cohort was a massive learning exercise,” says Polejack, adding that some of the best lessons also came out of interactions among participants between program sessions.   

The participants have since returned to their respective countries, where they will apply their learnings in practice. Back in Brazil, Polejack and de Oliveira Lana have already crossed paths together in another meeting related to science diplomacy, and say they plan to apply their learnings from the course to their work within Brazil and beyond.  

Meanwhile, back home, Neskovic has already applied for a research grant focusing on the role of the academic community in political processes within the Republic of Serbia. She says this is just the “first step” in applying the knowledge she gained from the course, as well as partnering with Todorić on future projects.  

Science and policy can sometimes clash, but when the two forces work in harmony, we can overcome global challenges. Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS and Executive Publisher of the Science family of journals, reminded participants that the AAAS-TWAS Course on Science Diplomacy provides a shared experience for scientific and diplomatic leaders that can increase understanding and build trust. Parikh also challenged them “to not only think of ways that your participant pair can work together in science diplomacy, but what structures are needed to encourage the broader scientific and foreign policy communities to work together.”  

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