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AAAS and TWAS Plant the Seed of Science Diplomacy

Mandë Holford, an associate chemistry professor at Hunter College in New York, was among course instructors coaching scientists on training others during the AAAS-TWAS science diplomacy course in Trieste, Italy. | Paula Di Bella/TWAS

Ice is thawing and permafrost is melting across the Arctic region, and nations are exploring how to tap new natural resources such as gas and oil reservoirs. The changes are, however, disrupting the life and culture of indigenous communities throughout the polar region.

Long considered distant and desolate, the Arctic is now one of many examples where the future of a population and a region needs the attention of scientists, diplomats and policymakers. Yet, there is a challenge: scientists, diplomats and policymakers often come from different cultures and speak different languages. At a recent course organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and The World Academy of Sciences participants were trained how to frame their own courses and educate future science diplomats in their home countries.

The AAAS-TWAS science diplomacy program is a globally respected initiative in the field of science diplomacy. Starting with the first course in 2014, the annual courses have hosted more than 350 scientists, diplomats and policy experts from more than 70 nations.

This year the “Train the Trainers” course, held August 26-28 at TWAS’ Trieste, Italy headquarters was a natural evolution of past course editions. The focus was on training future science diplomacy ambassadors through hands-on activities. The goal was to offer them strategies and tools so that they could return home and, through courses and activities tailored for their home institutions and countries, forge a future class of science diplomats.

“Science diplomacy works when there are practitioners of it – people who understand the value of international relations, foreign policy, and the scientific process and can apply the combination in their work,” said Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international affairs at AAAS in Washington, D.C.

Peter McGrath, the coordinator of science diplomacy/science policy program, said the explosive growth of science diplomacy training called for a new formula to “enable participants to develop their own quality course, locally tailored but inspired by global challenges.”

Thirty participants, 52% female, were selected from hundreds of applications demonstrating the growing demand for science diplomacy training around the world. Participants came from 22 countries in Latin America, Asia, Middle East, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

From the beginning, the AAAS-TWAS program has received financial support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, while the current course also was sponsored by the Golden Family Foundation, which has provided sustained support AAAS.

The course’s focus on communication and ways to make connections across disciplines and cultures was valuable, said Kebba Omar Jagne, the founder of an educational technology social enterprise based in Gambia. “We often partner as consultants with ministries, policymakers and institutions, training audiences who need interdisciplinary skills in communication,” Jagne said. “Learning how to establish a trustworthy relationship is important for the success of our activity.”

Course simulations and role-playing games were devised by Alastair Hay, a British toxicologist and science diplomat with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Such hands-on approaches pushed participants into leadership roles and allowed them to practice collaboration, negotiation, reciprocity and trust-building.

As it turned out, there is a gap to fill in what scientists should know about diplomacy, and diplomats about science. The language that both parties use, the importance of boundary-spanning skills in communication, is often ignored. In laying the foundation of a course that offers such workplace tools, it is important to consider that a template structure works well, but adjustments on local needs and culture are equally necessary.

“Organizing a successful course in India, Panama, South Africa or Brazil requires different approaches,” said Marga Gual Soler, a AAAS Science Diplomacy consultant. “This is why we devised an event where participants would not only reinforce what they know, but also acquire new tools and build best practices by sharing their personal knowledge.”

Science diplomacy courses can pose challenges at the global level. Climate change, with its global impact, for instance, calls for an approach involving various countries. Other courses, focused on transboundary conservation or land use, can be addressed by a couple of countries. Ideal target communities for such training also vary by issue and urgency.

“Our group was made of six people from three distant areas of the world,” said Wei Liu, the director of Division One of the International Cooperation Department at the Chinese Academy of Engineering. “Therefore, we devised an intensive full-time course, for a broad audience, aiming at creating awareness on science diplomacy.”

Early-career scientists and students are important targets as they are potential future drivers in global policies. “What’s important is the quality of interaction with students. We need to know clearly what works well and what doesn’t, and what conversations best raises their attention,” added Bill Pan, an associate professor of global environmental health at Duke University.

In the final exercise, participants were asked to form working groups and devise training courses with various formats: from one-day to five-day intensive courses; courses targeted at university teams or diplomats; and even an online course. During review sessions, participants briefed colleagues.

“I came with great expectations, and I am leaving with much satisfaction, as I go home knowing how to proceed and draft a course with good content,” said Elisabeth W. Njenga, an associate professor at the University of Eldoret in Kenya and the vice-chair of the Kenya National Chapter of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World. “Soon I will speak at an international conference on science diplomacy, and I will be able to tailor my content using the tools I learned here.”

Florencia Paoloni, the science and technology secretary at the Italian-Latin American International Organization, praised the richness of the educational tools she received compared with other training programs. “The AAAS-TWAS course is much more dynamic: I’m leaving here with a bag full of useful suggestions and ideas, which I'm eager to test in a course I plan to set up soon.”


[Associated image: Paula Di Bella/TWAS]



Cristina Serra

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