Workshop Equips African Scientists with Science Diplomacy Skills

Workshop participants take part in The Mercury Game, a simulation that draws upon a real-life multilateral negotiation scenario. | Marga Gual Soler/AAAS

Thirty aspiring science diplomats from sub-Saharan Africa gathered in Gauteng, South Africa, for a regional workshop on science diplomacy – the first such seminar to emerge from a longstanding partnership between the American Association for the Advancement of Science and The World Academy of Sciences.

The inaugural South African workshop was co-sponsored by the regional office of The World Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Science of South Africa, which hosted the five-day event that began on May 21 near Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa.

Previously AAAS and TWAS have held annual, weeklong courses in science diplomacy in Trieste, Italy, bringing together participants from around the world since 2014.

“It is projected that, by 2100, one in every four people on Earth will be African. It is a continent of enormous potential and opportunity, but like the rest of the world, it faces challenges that have the potential to be addressed in some way through science diplomacy,” said Mahlet Mesfin, deputy director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, which provides training and resources for scientists and diplomats working at the nexus of science and international relations.

“Exposing scientists and diplomats on the continent to new concepts, skills and networks will hopefully increase the potential for the participants of this course to directly contribute to the future of Africa, as well as the global community.”

Marga Gual Soler, senior project director at the Center for Science Diplomacy, said, “The collective expertise and potential of the participants representing 17 countries in Africa and nearly all scientific disciplines and sectors is boundless.”

The participants, chosen from more than 300 applicants, possessed a diverse range of expertise, including disciplines from oceanography and aquaculture to linguistics, biotechnology and civil engineering, and represented sectors that include academia, industry, government, scientific academies and nongovernmental organizations. 

The first regional science diplomacy course from AAAS, TWAS and ASSAf brought together 30 scientists from 16 sub-Saharan African nations. | ASSAf 

Participants engaged in an intensive introduction to science diplomacy, a multifaceted practice with three main dimensions: diplomacy that enables international collaborations to advance science; scientific collaboration that advances diplomacy; and scientific knowledge and expertise that informs diplomacy. The workshop explored science diplomacy’s role in natural resource management, public health, disaster preparedness and relief and climate change adaptation.

The organizers took a transdisciplinary approach to address such diverse subjects, “all contextualized to the unique needs, challenges and opportunities of the African continent,” said Gual Soler. “It was fascinating to see how all the different topics covered in the workshop are interrelated.”

Speakers emphasized common themes of cooperation and credibility.

During a panel on the international coordination of the response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, for instance, Marietjie Venter of the University of Pretoria and Sylvia Blyden, a former minister in Sierra Leone, highlighted the importance of sharing scientific knowledge to prevent further spread of the disease. They also explored challenges that arise working with national governments and international organizations.

Eiman Karar, a senior United Nations adviser in Kenya, addressed the complexities of water diplomacy. With 286 trans-boundary rivers around the world, “the conflict over water can be quite dire if countries do not share information and aim to cooperate,” particularly in Africa, where high rates of evaporation compound water scarcity, she noted.  

“The science behind water diplomacy is an avenue for building trust. If you can agree upon the scientific models, then stakeholders can work out how they share water,” Karar said.

In a keynote address, Lassina Zerbo, the executive secretary of Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, said “We need science to help build trust because science is true, science is real.” Earlier this year, Zerbo of Burkina Faso was presented the AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy. “It’s up to you to carry the torch – bringing the light wherever it looks dark,” said Zerbo.

The workshops offered 33 speakers the majority of whom were from across Africa. They helped “capture the societal, political and cultural contexts in which science diplomacy operates and identify unique challenges and needs to promote science diplomacy at the local, national and regional levels,” said Gual Soler. The speakers included diplomats, policymakers, academics and a Maasai leader.

Zerbo emphasized that copying science diplomacy models of Western nations without adapting them to the “specific realities” of African countries would be a mistake and “not accomplish anything,”

Shuaib Lwasa, an associate professor at Uganda’s Makerere University, said “We need more African scientists participating in the multilateral scientific assessments and reviews and presenting the African perspective on these issues.” Lwasa expanded on that sentiment during a workshop presentation on cross-border health and environmental challenges.

As a workshop participant, Amritpal Kalsi, a forensic pathologist from Kenya, said she and her fellow participants are among those ready to take up this mantle. “There is a drive and a momentum across this room – and globally – for the issue of science diplomacy,” she said.

Participants were given an opportunity to test their skills during a simulated negotiation scenario that exposed them to a real-life multilateral negotiation. At the end of the course, each participant presented an action plan to promote science diplomacy in their home institutions and countries. Among participants’ plans was promoting cooperation among Africa’s science academies and fostering collaboration between science ministries and foreign affairs ministries.

“They came away with a greater awareness of the impact they can make as scientists or policymakers, and I look forward to seeing how they incorporate that knowledge into their work in the institutions on the African continent and beyond,” said Mesfin.

Daphne Bitalo, a geneticist with the National Coffee Research Institute in Uganda, agreed, saying the workshop will guide her future interactions with policymakers. “I need to first explain what genetics can do for policy – based on evidence. And now I have a better way of understanding how I am going to conserve coffee in Uganda,” she said.

In one workshop, Jacqueline McGlade, a former chief environmental scientist at the United Nations and now a professor at University College London, and Maasai Mara of the University in Kenya, discussed environmental management in Africa and facilitated a negotiation simulation. McGlade said such courses will help early career scientists get involved in science diplomacy without following traditional paths through academia into diplomacy.

“From the very beginning they’re going to see that diplomacy is not only a way to increase their own knowledge, but to bring science into everyday discussions,” McGlade said, “And that is what I see this course being able to do – particularly for Africa.”

[Associated image: Marga Gual Soler/AAAS]