SciDF Talks – Science Diplomacy

On 18th of July, we organised a SciDF Talks about science diplomacy, hosted by the Residència d’Investigadors and supported by the Marie Curie Alumni Association and Telapolis. On the panel four brilliant national and international speakers, who presented different points of view on the topic.

Are you a researcher or do you work in a science-related activity? Have you ever done a stay abroad or worked in an international environment? If both of the answers are yes, you may be a science diplomat and are not aware about it! As it was pointed out during this session, conducted by Yoran Beldengrün and dynamized by Crisal Rodríguez, science diplomacy is a recent concept for an old practice and the roles of researchers and ambassadors overlap more than what you may think.

Octavi Quintana, director of the PRIMA Foundation (Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area) and former director of the European Research Area, opened the round of interventions. Octavi differentiated between three concepts: diplomacy for science –to facilitate the scientific collaboration amongst countries–, science in diplomacy –to advise policy makers– and science for diplomacy –to improve international relations through scientific cooperation.

Through those approaches, PRIMA aims at developing and implementing innovative solutions for sustainable food and water management, ensuring cooperation amongst countries in the Mediterranean basin. In this cooperation, science is the common language that helps smoothening the relationships amongst the participating states, especially in case of conflict. As Octavi indicated, conflicts are based on emotions while science is rational, based on facts. Thus science is a powerful tool to approach conflicts without value judgements. But it is a reciprocal relationship, as the science enterprise builds trust in foreign relations, as well as foreign relations make science enterprise capable.

Casimiro Vizzini, expert in the Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building at UNESCO, gave us insights about how this UN organisation contributes to science diplomacy. Historically, UNESCO was created after World War II to reinforce bonds between countries as a means to ensure peace. Since then, it has been involved in the creation of institutions such as the ICTP (International Centre for Theoretical Physics, founded in 1964), TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries, founded in 1983) or more recently the SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, opened in 2017). In the present, UNESCO is involved in the H2020 funded project InsSciDE (Inventing Shared Diplomacy for Europe), which aims at strengthen collaboration in a context of fragmented expertise and at designing tools to set a common diplomacy for Europe.

Next, Montserrat Daban, head of International Relations, Secretariat for Universities and Research of the Government of Catalonia, highlighted the importance of science as a tool for diplomacy, based on three characteristics. First, science is global. Second, scientists are well valued and trustworthy. And third, science tackles challenges that should be approached in an international and interdisciplinary context. Not surprisingly, she showed us a study concluding that the more collaboration there is amongst scientific groups, the higher the impact of their publications. And not only is the impact important, solutions come from collaboration and from an informed decision making. Montserrat finished her presentation providing us with recommendations for further reading:  When scientists do what diplomats can’t, Why scientist should all be diplomats.

In practice, working internationally entails physical difficulties, such as coping with flight delays! However, his multiple hour flight-delay did not impede Lorenzo Melchor, science coordinator of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) in the Spanish Embassy in London, to arrive just in time for his intervention. Lorenzo explained that one major role of the Embassy, regarding science diplomacy, is to build trust through communication at different levels. For this purpose, annual meetings are organized to strengthen the relation between the Ministry of Science and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Efforts are also being done to connect countries through science, to mention: the visit of the King of Spain to research institutions in the UK in july 2017, where he met Spanish students and scientist expats. The connection amongst those Spanish researchers within the UK is as well enhanced through regular activities. One specific program to highlight, developed by the FECYT, is Ambassadors for Science, that brings together professionals from science and diplomacy. This shadowing program allows both parties to experience an usual working week of the other and in this manner broaden their views and understand the realities and challenges of each other’s field.

After a round of questions that allowed to further discuss on the topic and reinforce the importance of building trust and collaboration, we continued the session with food and drinks in a relaxed environment amongst scientists and diplomats from different fields and countries. This is how we put science diplomacy in practice that evening!

Berta Gallego Páramo