Viewpoint: Science diplomacy needs a refresh to meet contemporary European needs

29 Mar 2021 | Viewpoint

Researchers and universities need to expand their science-diplomacy mission as it becomes a centerpiece of European science policy

Jean-Claude Burgelman (left) and Luk Van Langenhove (right), professors at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

To adapt to new political contexts, older concepts of science diplomacy urgently need to be expanded. And universities need to increase their support of those researchers who are active in science diplomacy.

Science diplomacy needs to be updated in the wake of the European Commission’s announcement that it will rethink its international R&D collaboration and in particular reconsider what was launched in 2016 as ‘’open to the world’’ science. According to three major Swedish universities—the Stockholm Trio—science diplomacy should be seen as a positive trademark for Europe. But why do we need science diplomacy and why should Europe invest in it?

Three varieties of science diplomacy

A key step in the recent history of science diplomacy came when the UK Royal Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science published in 2010 a joint report in which they established the distinctions between three varieties of science diplomacy:

  • Science for diplomacy, where science is used as a soft power tool.
  • Science in diplomacy, where scientists advise ministries of foreign affairs.
  • Diplomacy for science, where diplomacy supports international scientific collaborations.

The concept became salonfähig, or socially acceptable.  Today, science diplomacy stands for many different things, including soft power policies to attract scientists to a country; exchange programmes for scientific cooperation, and the appointment of science advisors in foreign affairs departments or embassies. Finally, science diplomacy can include interactions between scientists in a conflict-resolution context. This success of science diplomacy is perhaps its main weakness as the concept lacks a clear focus—some would argue it has become a ‘’concept valise’’ ready to fit anything into it. It also often seems to be associated with a rather romantic view of science as it stresses the universal language of science and the commitment of scientists to unconditional cooperation.

But such romanticising of science can also be part of an instrumental view of science as contributing to the state’s self-interests. After all, science diplomacy seems to be foremost an activity of states and not really a concern of many scientists. This conceptual fog needs to be cleared. Science diplomacy as a practice and a policy concern needs to better position itself within the dichotomy between cooperative and competitive science and also find a better balance between being public policy-sponsored and having the ownership of individual scientists.

The fourth dimension of science diplomacy

Until recently the importance of knowledge was predominantly associated with an instrumental view: what it could do for enhancing national innovation systems, or “knowledge economies.” This leaves knowledge as a global commons (including scientific knowledge) standing in the cold. In today’s international order, nobody really speaks up for the global knowledge commons and that is precisely what scientists could do: play the  role of being the diplomatic spokespersons of the global knowledge commons. This implies that science could be a diplomatic actor on its own behalf. There are indeed good reasons to do exactly that, namely that we are living in a knowledge society where a Schumpeterian process of creative destruction from within is taking place in how knowledge is generated, stored, retrieved and used. We call that sort of change “open science,’’ with research and data accessible to all, because it not only changes the logic of scientific production, but also challenges the traditional ways of organising academia.

And because this goes hand in hand—due to globalisation—with a continuous increase over the last 50 years in resources for science and the numbers of scientists, we are now in a situation where never in human history has there been so much knowledge available on just about anything.
This means that there is hardly any excuse not to tackle the significant problems we face. We know the challenges of climate change, due to decades of research into it, but we hesitate to move forward (and indeed seem to need Bill Gates to tell us what could be done).

This is why the original triple definition of science diplomacy urgently needs to be expanded  to bring forward a fourth dimension of science diplomacy: the use of diplomatic skills and tools in advocating for global scientific knowledge: the translation of science into societal impact. In the original terminology, this could be expressed as “diplomacy in science,” although it might be better to think of this as “knowledge diplomacy” in order to avoid the romantic connotation of science diplomacy and allow a focus on concrete problems.  This boils down to strengthening the diplomatic capacities of the producers and distributors of scientific knowledge.

Knowledge needs its own diplomats for several reasons:

  • To combat anti-scientific attitudes: here knowledge diplomacy could defend science, its values, its methods and its scientists.
  • To repair fragmentation: to the extent that scientific knowledge becomes more and more specialised, both scientists and the general public need non-specialised syntheses of the available knowledge.
  • To raise impact on societal debates: scientific knowledge cannot be assumed to automatically find its way to non-scientific audiences. In order to have non-academic impact, more is needed than promoting open access or writing policy briefs. Here, a knowledge diplomacy dimension can disseminate and promote scientific results in a systematic way.
  • To professionalise dialogue with policymakers: this can be illustrated by the example of climate change and how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses complex mechanisms of synthesising knowledge and translates it into sound policy advice. This should be a model for other policy domains based upon knowledge diplomacy as a mechanism for formalising expertise transfer from scientists towards policymakers. The panel’s practice also illustrates that next to scientists who perform the actual research, there is also room for scientists with diplomatic skills to engage in negotiations with policy-makers.

Bring in the universities

One should not be naïve: without career incentives and institutional backing, the majority of  scientists will never in a systematic way engage in such roles as described above. In order to mobilise the bulk of researchers for taking up diplomatic roles, support is needed from universities. They need to make it clear that they expect their researchers to be active in science diplomacy. For this, three avenues of university self-transformation are needed to establish universities as science diplomacy actors. These avenues are:

  • Investing in synthesising scientific knowledge and rewarding such efforts with career-development prospects.
  • Engaging in autonomous procedures and rules to bring scientific knowledge to policymakers and civil society.
  • Organising academic assessments of the practice of science and knowledge diplomacy on its effectiveness and efficiency. After all, there exists good and bad diplomacy.

Finally, two enabling conditions are needed for realising the above sketch of transformation towards sustainable human progress. First, the longstanding link between higher education and national innovation systems should be decoupled so universities can shift to becoming actors for the global commons. Secondly, there is the need to further push the practice of open science toward the mainstream of academic research. Here the answer is as simple as it can possibly be: the current reward system for scientists needs to change. Now it is quasi exclusively focused on producing science (the impact factor) but it should include other impacts as well. If my science contributes to a clean battery, without necessarily resulting in a top ranked publication, the former should be rated as high as the latter.

So, lets transform science diplomacy as a policy-tool driven by states into “open knowledge diplomacy” as a tool used by scientists. Only when this happens, can universities contribute more effectively toward dealing with today’s grand challenges. An “open to the world” scientific sensibility should still be guiding Europe, because science is global, but the openness should be geared to common goals as only then can we be sure the openness is reciprocal.

Luk Van Langenhove and Jean-Claude Burgelman are professors at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Van Langenhove was scientific coordinator of one of the first Horizon 2020 projects on science diplomacy. Burgelman formerly led open science policy formulation at the European Commission, and is currently editor in chief of Frontiers Policy Labs.

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