The Seismic Shift In Science Diplomacy

The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the changes recent years have wrought in the field of science diplomacy. On the one hand, this war represents a drastic failure for science’s ability to prevent conflict. On the other hand, it has led to a renewed effort to apply science diplomacy in a beneficial way going forward. Exploring the latest trends in science diplomacy reveals how the debate has shifted and what role science will play in international politics in the near future.

Science diplomacy is essentially the idea that scientific collaboration can enhance the relationship between nations, as the facilitation of co-operation can build bridges and work to subtly influence behavior. In this way, science diplomacy acts as a kind of “soft power.” Among Western countries, science has often been viewed as apolitical, thus providing a unique avenue to transcend cultural, national, or political boundaries.

The impact that recent major events, most notably the COVID pandemic and the Russian aggression against Ukraine, have had on science diplomacy can be seen most clearly in the relationship between the West and Russia.

Prior to this year, Russia was relatively integrated with the rest of the scientific world. UNESCO reports that between 2017 and 2019, almost a quarter of all Russian science research papers had foreign collaborators. This year has seen many Western scientists and scientific bodies ending those collaboration with Russia, such as CERN suspending Russia’s membership and the European Space Agency cutting ties. This therefore represents a failure of the previous liberalizing and collaborative vision of science diplomacy, harshly dispelling science’s ability to promote peace. Thus, it is fair to say that, at least regarding relations between Russia and the West, this era of science diplomacy has ended in failure.

The first reason for this is that Russian science, as in many countries, has long been a product of politics. As a result, it is difficult to rise above the fray and achieve objectivity in the way traditional science diplomacy strives for. This was illustrated starkly during the COVID pandemic, when vaccine development was politicized and the Russian Sputnik vaccine (itself named after a prominent Soviet scientific victory) was released in Russia to great fanfare. In this context, for many Russian researchers (particularly in key fields of collaboration like aerospace), the idea of science existing completely distinctly from politics is not realistic. Science diplomacy therefore seems fanciful.

This problem is compounded by the West’s attitude that science is never political. The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, for instance, states that “research ideally develops independently of pressure from commissioning parties and from ideological, economic of political interests.” This means that scientific collaboration is often driven by bodies like universities, or through personal relationships between researchers, making integrating science within a broader national strategy difficult.

Finally, while science diplomacy may have lofty intentions, it remains to be seen whether it is truly possible for science to have a pacifying effect on unfriendly relations. Despite the scientific nature of events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, public and governmental response has often subordinated science between policy. The Russian Academy of Science, for example, released a statement in March calling for a “cessation of hostilities” and urging the Russian government to pursue peace and scientific diplomacy. These complaints, however, fell on deaf ears. Consequently, while scientific collaboration can certainly have an influence in policymaking, it remains difficult for science to unilaterally instigate major changes in policy, particularly when, as is the case in Russia, the problems are not explicitly scientific.

These problems necessitate a shift in the approach taken towards science diplomacy. While it may seem as though science diplomacy is ineffective, it can still have a key part to play. The pandemic and climate crisis have shown that science is becoming increasingly important in the modern world, and are problems which affect the whole world, with little regard for borders or national interests. By possessing a key part of the solution to these problems, and with an emphasis on cross-border co-operation, science diplomacy is uniquely well positioned to play a star role in the coming years… provided it adapt itself to the changing geopolitical context.

Recent months have seen increasing signs of a shift in the way science diplomacy is being conducted, representing a promising future avenue. In the wake of the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine, numerous countries, such as Canada, South Korea, and Japan, have announced intentions to align more closely with the European Union’s Horizon Europe research funding project.

At the same time as efforts have been made to increase co-operation between allies, greater attention is also being paid to rethinking co-operation with potential future adversaries. The failure of science diplomacy in Russia and the disruption caused by ending ties this year mean many are changing their mind about the idea that science can be blind to politics. Jan Wöpking, director of the U15 group of German research universities, told Science Business that this could be the start of a shift “to a post-naive world of science cooperation and science diplomacy.”

This development thus indicates a new and completely different direction for science diplomacy. Gone are the days when international science operated without paying major attention to the political scene. Instead, science seems to be increasingly coalescing around political blocs rather than operating completely freely. The adoption of COVID vaccines illustrates how this might look, with countries preferring to authorize certain vaccines, typically the ones they or countries friendly with them made, while other countries, such as many of those in the Global South, had vastly reduced access to the technology. As the scientific community becomes politically polarized, and as collaboration between rival countries reduces, different political blocs will start to see differences emerge in the scientific sphere in a kind of “scientific nationalism.”

This change will have implications for the way that science diplomacy is conducted. By creating more partisan divisions in science, science’s potential to reconcile conflicting nations is inevitably diminished. On top of that, the development of science itself will be harmed in some ways by reduced co-operation, as can be seen now with the loss of access to Russian scientists and research. Yet Russia’s actions have shown that science diplomacy lacks the capacity to seriously change policy, and historical events like the Space Race indicate that competition can sometimes be beneficial for the growth of science. Thus, while there will undoubtedly be negatives in increasing scientific partisanship, they need not be fatal.

Instead, the new age of science diplomacy has the potential to reinforce existing relationships, bringing close countries even closer together. Rather than the apolitical science of the past, science will most likely be used similarly to the other tools in the soft power “arsenal,” as a way to emphasize certain values in line with national goals.

The difference in scientific capabilities between countries will additionally work to strengthen relationships. An illustrative example is the British government’s decision in 2020, where, lacking any home-grown 5G capacity, it decided to ban Chinese telecom company Huawei in favor of Western providers. Intranationally, we will most likely see greater government involvement in science development, as can be seen with the “operationalizing” of science in the context of COVID-19 and Ukraine.

Taken together, this new era represents a greater linkage between diplomacy and science, one which solves many of the problems science diplomacy has faced in recent years. As moral righteousness replaces moral ambiguity and regionalism replaces internationalism, a world beset by scientific problems may have found a new way to powerfully project national values in a peaceful manner.


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