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EU will maintain scientific ties with Russia despite escalating tensions

Science diplomacy can light the way where other kinds of politics and diplomacy have failed, says Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas

Carlos Moedas, EU Research Commissioner, summons hopeful pitch on EU-Russia science ties
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While EU-Russian diplomacy gets more strained by the week, science communication lines will remain open, the EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas said on a visit to the US this week.

“The EU has imposed many sanctions on Russia, but one area where we have endeavoured to maintain our strong connection is in the area of research and innovation,” Moedas said in a speech in Washington on Monday. 

“Russia is a very active scientific partner of the EU. It is still a welcome partner in the Horizon 2020 [research programme]. We are working to maintain this important bridge to Russia, preserving a precious link through the common language and ideals of science,” the Commissioner said.

Moedas used his visit to remind US and European governments of their obligations to not let science ties suffer during an icy spell in international relations. “My hope is for the United States and the EU to continue to lead by example in this regard,” he said. 

The current frigid relationship between Europe and Russia, which dates back to the latter’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine last year, deteriorated further last weekend with the disclosure of Moscow’s blacklist of 89 European politicians and military leaders who are banned from entering the country.

But while some politicians in Brussels, like the European Parliament President Martin Schulz, reacted to the news with characteristic breast-beating, Moedas made a more measured response, saying there will be no reflex action to cut ties in science.

While European governments no longer sell hi-tech equipment to Russian defence and energy firms, and Moscow has blocked imports of Polish apples, tit-for-tat sanctions have exempted research, which Moedas says benefits from a depoliticised air. 

Since tensions between the two blocs rose last year, Russian astronauts have continued to work with their European counterparts high up in the International Space Station (ISS). ExoMars, the mission to put a demonstration lander on the red planet in 2016, is being led by the European Space Agency, with Russians supplying the launcher and two of the four instruments of the scientific payload. 

And while the Commissioner did not mention that Russia’s participation in Horizon 2020 has gone down, compared with figures from the 2007-2013 programme cycle, the explanation for the slide might be changing funding rules, which say Russia has to bring cash of its own to any joint-research projects. 

Science diplomacy

The constant threat of further political breakdown could force countries to pull out or cancel their funding at any time. However, “the history of science diplomacy tells us that…relationships between scientists of conflicting countries, although they may suffer, generally keep on going,” said Pierre-Bruno Ruffini, professor of economics at University of Le Havre who previously worked as a science attaché in the French embassy in Russia. 

The situation in Ukraine led the US government to scale back contact between NASA and Russian space agencies and government representatives, although there is still cooperation on the ISS. The NATO military alliance also shut the door on Russia’s involvement in its Science for Peace and Security Programme, which includes cooperation on new technologies.

A G8 Summit of world leaders scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia, early last year was cancelled and replaced by a G7 meeting in Brussels, minus the participation of Russia. But a ‘Global University Summit 2014’, scheduled to run in the shadow of G8, still took place. 

“According to my information, there was no idea of a boycott among participants from Western countries who had registered, although a few of them, maybe, decided not to go to Moscow, on an individual basis,” said Ruffini. “It seems to me that a large majority of scientists and researchers, whatever they may think about [President] Putin's [dealings] in Crimea and East of Ukraine, are not comfortable with the idea of using Russia-EU or Russia-US scientific cooperation as a piece on the chess board.”

Anyone looking for a historical parallel to underline the importance of science diplomacy between nations need not look far. Cooperation by US and Soviet scientists during the Cold War is hailed by many observers as vital for defusing the decades-long stand-off. Joint talks on nuclear disarmament and participation in the Apollo-Soyuz space exploration project helped to ease relations between the two nations in the 1970s.

An olive branch

Today, politicians are more than ever recognising the “elevated language of science” as a back channel for political dialogue and deals. 

“Known in America for a long time, science diplomacy is an emerging term in the EU context, and a recent one at broader international level,” Moedas said. “I believe [it] is the torch that can light the way, where other kinds of politics and diplomacy have failed.” 

It may be a fluid concept, but scientific diplomacy can act as an olive branch between neighbours at loggerheads. The Sesame particle accelerator project in Jordan, which brings together scientists from countries with fragile communication lines, including Israel, Iran, Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority, is an unlikely but encouraging example. “Projects like SESAME are as valuable for their contribution to stability…as they are to knowledge and science,” Moedas noted. 

Before Sesame, there was CERN, the Geneva-based particle physics lab, which was set up after the Second World War to unite scientists from former battling nations in Europe. 

Audra J. Wolfe, author of ‘Competing With the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America’, said the breakthrough on the US-Iran nuclear deal is another occasion where science prised open a sealed door. US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, both hail from governments which are highly suspicious of one another. But with their doctorates in theoretical physics and nuclear engineering, respectively gained from top US universities, Moniz and Salehi forged a way to talk directly with each other on the scientific details of the agreement.

Soft power

In the UK and the US, observers see a greater push to kit governments out with the tools of science diplomacy. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has created a Center for Science and Diplomacy, which is now offering training in science diplomacy, publishes an online journal, and recently held a science diplomacy conference. 

Wolfe said, “The Obama administration's science envoy programme sends prominent scientists abroad as private citizens. This gives them more leeway in their discussions, and sometimes gives them access to sites that ‘official’ government representatives can't go to – even though everyone understands they're travelling on behalf of the US government.”

Annick Suzor-Weiner, today a professor at the University of Paris-Sud, met several such envoys during her time as science attaché in the French embassy in the US. “I was not very impressed, and had the impression, at least for some of them, that they were rather working to maintain the dominance of American science, than for an open science diplomacy,” she said. 

This is the other acknowledged form of science diplomacy: a convenient cloak to exercise a little “soft power”. The US is not alone in evoking the concept for other means. The EU’s foreign policy wing, the EU External Action Service, describes the concept as, “a mean[s] to raise awareness among elites in third countries on EU values, visions and priorities.”

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