Comment »Posted on Wednesday 3 June 2009 at 10:44 am by Jessica Bland
In Happenings, Science Policy

Over the last two days, London’s Royal Society hosted a discussion meeting on new frontiers in science diplomacy.  Participants represented everything from Big science in the Middle East through to the Japanese diplomatic core. And they each brought different ideas and suggestions for the interaction between international politics and science.

My original post was a run-down of the meeting’s uncomfortable moments – the points where even an outsider could sense the tension between different points of view. But worries about confidentiality moved me towards a more thematic discussion. SciDev.Net’s editor was blogging from the conference, with full permission from the speakers. And so, for a more detailed account of what went on, check out it out here.

The final SciDev post outlines three messages that came over across both days. I want to pick up on the second of them: that ‘science diplomacy’ is an unhelpful umbrella term for several activities that need to be separated.

The most helpful codification of these activities came early on Monday from the director of the International Science Cooperation Division of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Jun Yangi divided science diplomacy into four dimensions. First, there is science used for diplomatic purposes; second, there is diplomacy for science and technology; there can also be diplomacy based on science; and finally, science and technology is a source of soft, attractive power.

Other speakers would have done well to pick up on these distinctions more explicitly. In many cases  the content of a talk was not contentious, but the implied definition of science diplomacy was not one that even the next person on the platform would have agreed with.

The introductory speeches provided a marked example of this. The UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, John Beddington pointed to the danger of science used for political ends – the first of the four Japanese dimensions.

Immediately following him was Nina Fedoroff, Science and Technology Advisor to the US Secretary of State. She started her address by distinguishing science diplomacy from the use of science in diplomacy. It seemed like she was drawing a similar line to Beddington between the first and the latter three dimension. Except, that her examples of science diplomacy were not really in the same vein. Building an Iraqi virtual science library to replace the books destroyed during the war has as much political as scientific colour.

Fedoroff advocated the incorporation of more scientists  into the heart of government. Whilst Beddington favoured a depoliticization of scientists and scientific discussion. A tighter definition of scientific diplomacy from the start might have forced them into a head to head discussion of this tension.

This definitional problem appeared on the second day as well. One particularly obvious instance was when the British Council representative distinguished science diplomacy and international science relations. Fifteen minutes later, his colleague, Professor Mohamed Hassan from the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World defined science diplomacy as exactly those collaborative relations the Council member distinguished it from.

Perhaps the definitional difference here was not a problem. Both contributors wanted to discuss relations; one distinguished them from diplomacy, the other did not.

It was, however, symptomatic of the same issue that divided Beddington and Fedoroff: the depth to which scientists should penetrate the political sphere. If Professor Hassan believes collaboration is diplomacy, then that is their implied diplomatic limit. He is more cautious – more like Beddington.  However, if the British Council want a separate category for science diplomacy, one that is closer to traditional diplomacy, then they are allowing scientists right into the centre of politics and offering a position closer to Fedoroff’s.

Defining science diplomacy is not just an academic debate. Different definitions map onto different national attitudes to scientists’ position in government and in politically sensitive international research. It might have been more diplomatic to sidestep the issue of an explicit definition in this conference. But a definition might be necessary in order to avoid creating rather than helping diplomatic issues in the future.

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