After an intensive four days of science diplomacy training at the Asia-Pacific region’s first-ever course on the subject, 56 scientists and policymakers from around the world who took part were asked what science diplomacy means to them in just one word. “Collaboration” and “communication” emerged as the most popular answers – two themes that resonated throughout the virtual course, held March 16-19.
“There is no better time than now to engage in science diplomacy,” said Hazami Habib, chief executive officer of Akademi Sains Malaysia (ASM), the national scientific academy that co-hosted the course alongside the American Association for the Advancement of Science and The World Academy of Sciences.
The COVID-19 pandemic is “a wake-up call” for science diplomats to address a range of issues “in which science, technology and the society are tightly intertwined,” emphasized Khatijah Yusoff, chair of the course’s organizing committee and council member of the ASM.
Timely, pressing issues informed and addressed by scientific expertise, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, illuminate the need for nations to collaborate across boundaries, noted many of the course’s speakers.
“To meet this increased demand, trained science diplomats are needed,” added Kimberly Montgomery, director of international affairs and science diplomacy at AAAS. The course trains scientists and policymakers interested in delving into the world of science policy and fosters the necessary connections that allow science diplomacy to address key issues, Montgomery said. It builds upon a decade of collaboration between AAAS and TWAS, which have held annual science diplomacy courses for participants around the world since 2014 and, in recent years, have hosted regionally focused workshops in Namibia, South Africa and Egypt.
Although the course focused on science diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region, it was a truly global event, bringing together 56 participants from 29 countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas. Thirty-three speakers and moderators facilitated the event from across multiple continents.
Accordingly, the agenda emphasized opportunities for collaboration, with participants working together on case study presentations delivered on the course’s final day. Participants also took part in interactive icebreakers, attended professional development sessions on science diplomacy careers and communicating science and learned from keynote speeches and panel discussions about the breadth of science diplomacy.
It can encompass scientific evidence and understanding that informs policy, diplomatic efforts that work toward scientific collaboration among nations and the international relations fostered by scientific collaboration, several speakers noted.
They also offered plenty of examples of how science diplomacy is built on collaboration – and how it fosters further connections.
In Antarctica, for instance, any data gathered there is available to anyone in the world through the International Science Council World Data System – a system that promotes international collaboration, according to Salleh Mohd Nor, a senior fellow at ASM.
“Research in this harsh environment is extremely challenging,” said Salleh, noting the logistical difficulty and expense. Yet, this system of collaboration opens up so many research opportunities on a range of subjects from organism survival and adaptation to space observation. This presents unparalleled research opportunities for researchers, including those from non-polar countries like Malaysia, which is party to the Antarctic Treaty that established and maintains the continent as a space for scientific collaboration.
“International cooperation is so vitally important to study Antarctica for the benefit of mankind,” he said, adding that the value of the research that emerges from Antarctica will continue to increase in the face of climate change.
Beyond the research outcomes that result from science diplomacy, there are benefits, too, in building relationships between nations, said Lindsay Falvey, commissioner of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Despite being a relatively small part of Australia’s budget, agricultural science partnerships that create scientific and policy capacity in neighboring countries also builds long-term trust between participants, creating “a feeling of reciprocity,” Falvey said.
Speakers also offered advice about engaging in science diplomacy, providing insight on how best to build that trust.
Zakri Abdul Hamid, former science advisor to the prime minister of Malaysia, discussed the importance of members of the scientific community convincing policymakers of key science-informed issues – such as biodiversity loss. To effectively convince policymakers of the significance of these issues, those engaged in science diplomacy must be credible, relevant and legitimate, Zakri said.
“The scientific community is not a bystander in trying to solve these global challenges,” said Zakri.
Speakers also offered participants suggestions for staying involved in the realm of science diplomacy after the conclusion of the course. Estefania Ortiz Calva, program associate for science diplomacy at AAAS, encouraged participants to get involved with their own country’s academy of science. Other speakers and moderators suggested connecting with policymakers – and with their fellow alumni of science diplomacy courses.
“What was really palpable was the passion, the desire and the conviction of each and every one of you in wanting to do something, change something,” said Sok Ching Cheong, a fellow at ASM and co-chair of TWAS Young Affiliate Network
Added Ortiz Calva, “Now you belong to this global network.”