Bridging Divides Through Science Diplomacy
Early-career researchers can play key roles in advancing international relations, if given training and opportunities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the international community with a series of unprecedented scientific, social, and public policy challenges. Particularly in the early days of the pandemic, the world experienced a shift toward geopolitical tribalism exemplified by nationalistic quests for personal protective equipment, testing supplies, and therapies. Rhetoric focused on “self-reliance” cast a shadow beyond the political and into the scientific, further magnifying perceptions that science is a competitive rather than a collaborative endeavor and increasing concerns that such actions may be encouraging a retreat into research secrecy.
Nowhere has the retreat from international cooperation been more drastic and consequential than between the governments of China and the United States, where increasingly antagonistic dialogue has exacerbated existing tensions between the two countries. If continued, the growing geopolitical conflict between the United States and China and declining faith in multilateralism could dominate a post-COVID world.
We argue that it is critical to foster international cooperation in the face of global crises. Early-career researchers (ECRs) like us are in a unique position to create new and lasting ties among scientists, with implications for improved international relations and the progress of science more broadly. However, helping ECRs develop the necessary skills requires investment by both research institutions and governments.
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of international cooperation in confronting global threats, which was observed through the role publications and knowledge exchanges played in quickly characterizing the virus. Collaboration appears to be an important way forward as the world looks to make meaningful progress in tackling both the pandemic and other pressing issues, such as climate change.
In mapping out his own experiences with “science for diplomacy,” President Obama’s science adviser John Holdren wrote that international science and technology (S&T) collaboration “foments personal relationships of mutual respect and trust across international boundaries that can bring unexpected dividends when the scientists and engineers involved end up in positions to play active roles in international diplomacy around issues with significant S&T content—e.g., climate change, nuclear arms control, and intellectual property.”
We define ECRs to include undergraduate and graduate students as well as those still in the early stages of their careers, in any sector. Precisely because they are early in their careers, ECRs are uniquely positioned to create bonds with foreign researchers now that can mature and strengthen over the coming decades.
ECRs are also key to collaborative efforts in low-risk research areas, which are nonpolitical and concern only basic scientific questions of mutual interests. Valerie Karplus, Granger Morgan, and David Victor noted in Issues that these “safe zones” could include research necessary to address climate change, such as advanced battery chemistry or carbon capture and sequestration, among other topics. These areas are unlikely to be of immediate commercial or military applications and thus are fertile grounds for developing international cooperative partnerships.
Looking back to another time of heightened geopolitical tensions—the Cold War—reveals that scientific cooperation at the level of individual laboratories, or through the exchange of students and scholars, was a popular and effective way of carrying out international cooperation. In the case of the United States and the Soviet Union, interpersonal relationships between scientists proved beneficial as the countries sought to cooperate on discrete space-related activities. Acknowledging the caveat that the political circumstances of the two periods are not identical, this type of approach, focusing on particular projects and individual relationships, could be used as a model to facilitate communication between China and the United States.
We also believe that any framework for scientific cooperation between the United States and other countries should center the role of ECRs. Areas of mutual interest present a prime opportunity for extending international collaboration beyond individual scientists to the level of research institutions and government agencies. Cooperation in such areas could be politically feasible despite geopolitical tensions: the 1985 Cold War-era agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to jointly develop the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an international nuclear fusion facility, is an illustrative example. ITER continues to operate today with an expanded coalition of international partners aiming to develop nuclear fusion as a sustainable energy source. A more contemporary example is US-Russia collaboration on spaceflight programs. Although space cooperation between the United States and China is less likely in the face of political tensions, expanding cooperation in health security could present a more feasible opportunity to warm relations.
By actively contributing to these projects, ECRs can play crucial roles in developing research agendas as well as in building relationships with individual researchers. The interpersonal relationships that develop among ECRs over the course of cross-border collaborations could prove instrumental as these scientists rise through the professional ranks in diplomatic or research arenas. In his op-ed, Holdren credited the relationship he developed with the Soviet scientist Evgeny Velikhov during US-Soviet collaboration in the field of nuclear fusion with the success of the bilateral commission on the disposal of excess plutonium in the post-Soviet era.
Through this process of long-term relationship building, scientific cooperation at the level of individual scientists could play a central role in building trust between countries. Over time, countries involved in individual-level collaborations may become more amenable to broader collaborative efforts, even in the field of commercial technologies.
As an example of how early-career personal relationships can lead to cross-institutional and even cross-national trust, as well as far-reaching research progress, consider the relationship between Mark Levine and Zhou Dadi. Levine, director of the US-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), and Zhou, then an ECR in energy efficiency, began working closely in 1988 at the start of the LBNL initiative to support international clean energy research, development, and deployment. Twenty years later, by the time momentum was growing for a US-China agreement to address climate change, Zhou had become an advisor on energy issues to premier Wen Jiabao and director of the China Energy Research Institute.
Zhou and Levine’s relationship created a foundation for progress on climate-related research. It also fostered mutual trust in intellectual property protections, easing the way for more expansive agreements in the future. For instance, CERC developed an intellectual property protection plan that “may ultimately play an important role in building trust among the consortia participants, which could lead to even more constructive collaborations in the future, and serve as a model for future bilateral cooperation agreements,” according to a 2014 examination of the program. Thus, Zhou and Levine’s ECR relationship provided a powerful connection between the two countries that grew to support meaningful progress on the broader issue of climate change.
Although ECRs could be highly effective in making meaningful progress on a range of S&T issues, the lack of awareness about science diplomacy career pathways and dearth of training opportunities has inhibited their ability to participate in this arena. Thus far, science diplomacy has been largely taught to ECRs through extracurricular courses and workshops or within general science policy programs (see Table 1). But there is a clear case for increasing support for ECRs to receive science diplomacy training.
Universities and research institutions can play a crucial role by creating new science diplomacy courses or certificate programs and ensuring that students and scholars have opportunities to pursue work experience in science diplomacy and other policy-related fields. Workshops and seminars involving professionals working in these fields could help expose ECRs to the various available avenues and provide potential mentors.
We argue that science diplomacy should be taught as an elective course and included in career development discussions. One possibility is to build on existing virtual courses, such as those offered by S4D4C and the DiploFoundation, among others.
Informal communities and networks can also be valuable resources for researchers interested in learning more about science diplomacy, providing a platform for networking and opportunities for engagement. The National Science Policy Network (NSPN), where several of the authors met to collaborate on this article, is one such community. That community’s informal environment facilitates open dialogue and discussion of innovative solutions to confront global challenges. NSPN’s Science Diplomacy Exchange and Learning program (SciDEAL), which completed its inaugural year, facilitates collaborative work between ECRs and science diplomacy institutions, including nonprofit organizations, embassies, and consulates.
The move into a post-COVID world requires all hands on deck to build the international collaboration that will help science most effectively address pressing global issues. With additional training opportunities and mentorship, ECRs can play an even greater role in building trust between countries—a fact illustrated through recent historical examples. ECRs, including us, are looking to gain experience in cross-border cooperative projects now so that as we move along our career trajectories in academic and science policy spaces, we can help shape a policy environment that promotes science for diplomacy.
Table 1. Selected opportunities for early-career researchers to train in science diplomacy.
|Organization||Course / summer school description||Website link|
|The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington (AAAS), DC, USA, and The World Academy of Sciences, Trieste, Italy.||This course exposes participants to key contemporary international policy issues relating to science, technology, environment, and health.||https://twas.org/opportunity/2020-aaas-twas-course-science-diplomacy|
|AAAS||This one-hour course is hosted by AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and covers the basic definitions and frameworks of science diplomacy as well as its evolution in history using several case studies.||https://www.aaas.org/programs/center-science-diplomacy/introduction|
|The Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub (SciTech DiploHub) and Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI).||The summer school offers an intense, 40+ hours course that covers the most pressing issues on science and technology diplomacy, such as sustainable development and technology diplomacy. It has a special focus on Europe, the Mediterranean, and the role of global cities.||http://www.scitechdiplohub.org/summer-school/|
|European Academy of Diplomacy and InsSciDE (Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe)||The Warsaw Science Diplomacy School allows young diplomats and scientists from across Europe to build diplomatic skills and create a new network of science diplomats.||https://insscide.diplomats.pl/summer-school/|
|S4D4C||The European Science Diplomacy Online Course introduces participants to science diplomacy, including the conceptual framing of science diplomacy and the variety of stakeholders and networks involved.||https://www.s4d4c.eu/european-science-diplomacy-online-course/|
|National Science Policy Network’s Science Diplomacy Exchange and Learning (SciDEAL) Program||This new program provides ECRs with opportunities to pursue project-based collaborations between early-career scientists and science diplomacy institutions, including nonprofit organizations, embassies, and consulates. Participants will create tangible outputs while also learning about science diplomacy and cooperation.||https://scipolnetwork.org/page/science-diplomacy-exchange-and-learning-scideal|
|The Institute of International Relations (IRI-USP) and the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA-USP)||The São Paulo School of Advanced Science on Science Diplomacy and Innovation Diplomacy (InnSciD SP) organizes an annual summer school introducing participants to multidisciplinary aspects of science diplomacy and innovation.||https://2020.innscidsp.com/about/|