Europe reviews science diplomacy policy after Ukraine invasion shock

27 Jun 2024 | News

Commission is to set out a new framework for how research can bolster diplomacy. It is not clear if links with Russia are helpful

Photo credits: designer491 / BigStock

As Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border in February 2022, waiting for a signal to invade from the Kremlin, scientific relations between Russia and Europe were looking healthy.

Over the past two decades, Brussels had given Russia more than €130 million under its various research and innovation programmes. One in twenty Russian papers had a co-author in Germany. Moscow was a partner in numerous scientific infrastructures across Europe. In 2019, the German Research Foundation even significantly expanded joint calls with its Russian counterpart, hoping that science would continue to be a “bridge” between the countries, despite Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

If Vladimir Putin – fearful of coronavirus and physically isolated behind long tables from world leaders and advisers alike - was aware of Russia’s tight links to European science, the risk to these ties did not unduly trouble him. Since ordering his army into Ukraine, joint publications have plummeted and official research projects have been all but uniformly cancelled.

The Ukraine invasion has raised tough questions for science diplomacy – the idea, at least in one version of the concept, that research links and joint scientific projects can help salve wider diplomatic wounds between countries that might otherwise be at loggerheads.

While no one claims research ties can prevent conflict on their own, Russia was welcomed and integrated into European science – and yet attacked the continent. Meanwhile, western academic collaboration with China has boomed, but diplomatic relations have soured to near-Cold War depths.

It’s against this background that the European Commission is working up a brand new science diplomacy framework to hash out exactly if and how research can aid Europe’s diplomatic goals.  

“Science diplomacy efforts in Europe remain largely uncoordinated,” said the Commission official leading the effort. “This creates vulnerabilities against the background of a rapidly changing geopolitical and scientific-technological environment, with global competitors using science diplomacy in a much more strategic manner.”

(Science|Business was told by the Commission not to identify the official).

The first European Science Diplomacy conference was held last December in Madrid, and five working groups of academics, diplomats and other experts are currently putting together recommendations that should be emerge as a report this October. The new Commission will then decide if these ideas get turned into a new policy document.

“Science diplomacy certainly is being conceptually redefined - the political objective is to make it more relevant to the current geopolitical situation, giving it more emphasis after Russia,” said Andrea Braun Střelcová, a China-focused researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, who sits on one of the working groups.   

Academic experts from non-EU European countries, like the UK, have been allowed to join in the discussions, but not their government representatives. Scientists from Turkey and Ukraine have also been involved.

Confusingly, science diplomacy is an umbrella term for several quite different things. Apart from using research to bridge-build between nations, it can also mean using scientific advice to make foreign policy more evidence based.

Rosy ideas

But it’s this bridge-building aspect of science diplomacy that is arguably under most scrutiny following the invasion of Ukraine, and some experts feel that it was embraced rather uncritically.

Certain researchers held “very rosy ideas about how science would alleviate tensions,” said Björn Fägersten, a political scientist who wrote a key report in 2022 about science diplomacy. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, western democracies hoped that more connections to countries like China and Russia – including scientific bonds – would mean that “people would become more like us”, he said, or at least remain friendly to the west.

But this hope has proven unfounded, and now, “research cooperation has experienced more or less the same wake up as liberal globalisation in general,” he said.

In particular with Russia, there was a “level of naivety regarding what science diplomacy could do in this area,” he said. For example, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was even awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Tromsø in 2011 – before it was hastily retracted following the invasion.

Fägersten’s 2022 report made the case that science diplomacy had to focus not just on trust building and cooperation, but view science and technology as a tool of leverage in a geopolitical power game.

Some of this emphasis on leverage is part of the discussions now being coordinated by the Commission. One question will be how to use science diplomacy “strategically” to both support “confidence building wherever possible and exerting pressure where needed, especially in conflict situations,” said the Commission official.

Bridge building

But this somewhat more hawkish turn doesn’t mean the Commission has given up on scientific bridge-building with Russia.

While cancelling Horizon Europe projects was a legitimate way of putting pressure on Moscow,  “science diplomacy will always strive for keeping communication channels open, even with Russia,” said the official.

For example, Russians have not been barred from exchange schemes like Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions. And there’s still scientific cooperation with Russia on the International Space Station and the ITER experimental nuclear fusion reactor.

Scientific infrastructure doesn’t just get scientists from rival countries working together, advocates of science diplomacy point out. To fund and run big international projects, you need government officials to meet too, and during a coffee break, they might be able to broach other diplomatic topics too, creating at least a potential for backchannel communication.

Shared academic experiences can also be rekindled at the diplomatic level. The Iran nuclear deal, although now defunct, was in part negotiated by two scientists-turned-officials – Ernest Moniz for the US, and Ali Akbar Salehi for Iran – who were both researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the same time during the 1970s.

And science has sometimes helped to thaw out frozen diplomatic relationships. The Max Planck Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences were central to re-establishing links between Bonn and Beijing in the mid-1970s, pointed out Stephane Christmann-Budian, an expert in Chinese science at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.


When Russia invaded Ukraine, shocked European governments on the whole rushed to cut all academic institutional ties and projects, in a manic few weeks of on-the-hoof decision making. But now there’s a sense that a plan is needed so that decisions in future are less knee-jerk.

“The European framework for science diplomacy will allow taking a more holistic and strategic approach to such situations,” said the official.

Whether or not the blanket decision to cut ties was right or not, “the decision making process was wrong because it was a political decision imposed on scientists,” said Stephanie Balme, Director of Sciences Po's Centre for International Studies, who is also helping to create the new framework.

Joint work on, say, history, social science and sociology might have been salvaged. “We could have kept some sort of operation building the next generation of Russian citizens,” she said. “If science diplomacy only works during peace time, then it’s a very weak tool.”

Russia might well have rejected European overtures to continue work in these areas, said Balme, but at least Moscow would own part of the responsibility for the severing of ties.

She argues it’s “very important” to have a science diplomacy strategy to “rebuild” not just Ukrainian but also Russian science.

Ukrainian research organisations, however, have called on western academics to reject all forms of collaboration with Russia-based scientists, because they are inextricably linked to state power.  

Another question for Europe’s science diplomacy strategy will be how it responds if China invades Taiwan.

Cutting institutional ties with Russia, while painful for some, is something European science can largely shrug off. But China is an enormous science power, and deeply integrated into the European system.

“Next time, we have to do it differently, if there is a next time,” said Balme. “It’s something else, when it comes to China.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up