One of the things I value the most about my scientific research training is how it expanded my worldview and gave me a stronger sense of interconnectedness with my fellow human beings. Growing up in rural Puerto Rico, I did not get a chance to meet people from different backgrounds and nationalities. Academia was, for me, that window to the world where I had the amazing experience of working alongside colleagues from different countries and walks of life. We shared a common goal: expanding our knowledge about the Universe and making discoveries for the benefit of Humankind.
In these moments of global political unrest, I have been reflecting on the role science plays to bridge geopolitical divides. What is the role of science in diplomacy? What can science do in times of crisis? Should scientific cooperation remain during times of war?
The term “science diplomacy” is recently coined, though science and diplomacy have long co-existed in practice. Science seeks to answer questions through empirical observation and evidence-based testing, while diplomacy facilitates dialogue between countries and peoples.
To learn more about the role of science diplomacy in international relations I reached out to a colleague of mine, Dr. Marga Gual Soler.
Marga is a molecular biologist, science diplomat, and the founder of SciDipGLOBAL, an advisory, strategy, research and training firm helping governments, universities, international organizations and scientific institutions strengthen the role of science in global policy. She has been one of the pioneers in building science diplomacy as a field of research, policy and education worldwide.
Marga served as Senior Project Director for the Center for Science Diplomacy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She has supported science diplomacy strategies for several Latin American countries, Spain and the European Union. She has also promoted scientific cooperation between countries under political strain, notably helping rebuild scientific cooperation between the United States and Cuba following the diplomatic normalization of 2015.
The following includes excerpts from a conversation I had with Marga on Facebook Audio Rooms, condensed and edited for clarity:
The Birth of a Science Diplomat
I asked Marga how she became interested in science diplomacy. She said that during her PhD studies, she realized the need for more awareness among non-academics about how the attributes we find in science, such as transparency, universality, and cooperation, could be used to tackle cross-border challenges. As a scientist she decided to take a non-traditional path and joined a very competitive internship program with the United Nations, to work on science, technology, and innovation for sustainable development.
Being perhaps one of the few scientists in a room full of experts in law, economics, social science, and international affairs made her feel at times like “un bicho raro” (a rare bug). However, this career experience made Marga realize the importance of having scientists insert themselves into these spaces. At the UN she supported efforts related to climate change, food security, and ocean health. “I realized we needed to build bridges [between these spaces and the scientific community]."
Science as a Bridge Between Nations
Global pandemics, tropical diseases, and natural - or manmade - disasters are examples of cross-border challenges in which scientific cooperation is extremely important. When diplomatic relations fail, universities, science organizations, and the civil society at large could keep open dialogue between societies that otherwise might be disconnected from one another.
Think about the Straits of Florida, a 90-mile sea zone between Key West, Florida and the Cuban shore. In 2011, Cuba started drilling oil off its northern coast. When official cooperation was not possible to address the risks of an oil-spill in the region, environmentalists and private-sector drilling experts began traveling to Cuba to discuss with island officials spill safeguards and the fragility of their shared ecosystems.
“Science can be that bridge. Science can be that common space to facilitate communication when there is no agreement in other areas.”
The Three Dimensions of Science Diplomacy
The three pillars or dimensions of science diplomacy are ‘science in diplomacy’, ‘diplomacy for science’, and ‘science for diplomacy'. This play on words helps us conceptualize science diplomacy in practical terms:
Science in diplomacy relates to the role science plays in informing decisions or agreements between nations. For example, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) worked to reach a climate deal, thousands of scientific references were utilized to inform the actions governments would need to take to limit global warming to only 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The Antarctic Treaty is a typical example of science in diplomacy. The treaty was signed in 1959 to ensure the Continent would be used for peaceful purposes only and for scientific investigation. Sixty years later, Dr. Marga Gual participated in the largest-ever women in STEM expedition to Antarctica to elevate women's leadership in sustainability and climate action.
Diplomacy for science refers to the use of diplomacy to facilitate international cooperation in order to advance scientific goals. This dimension generally applies to high-cost, ambitious science projects. Scientific infrastructures such as the International Space Station, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope are “like mini diplomatic institutions” because they require countries to come together to define the mission and the countries' financial contributions.
Science for diplomacy pertains to how scientific cooperation can help improve international relations and ease tensions during political strain, by finding common ground through the rational, non-ideological, and universal language of science. In doing so, bridges are built between societies disconnected as a result of a diplomatic conflict. The historic handshake in space that took place in 1975 between Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov and US astronaut Tom Stafford during the Apollo-Soyuz docking mission is an example of 'science for diplomacy' that led to subsequent collaborations between the two countries in space.
Please watch this video of Marga describing these three dimensions:
Science Diplomacy In Times of War
As a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, several countries have cut all research cooperation with Russia while other countries are calling for ties to remain. Opinions are diverse about what is right at this time. For Marga the conflict has been “a reality check” [to the science diplomacy world]. The basic premise is that we need to collaborate to tackle the challenges we all share. However, geopolitical conflicts are complex.
"An unprovoked, massive invasion of a peaceful country is an attack on science itself." - wrote Dr. Gerson S. Sher in a perspective article published in the Science & Diplomacy journal. "To put it plainly: in the case of a brutal aggression that violates international law, there is no “science diplomacy”!" tweeted Thomas Sattelberger, Germany’s parliamentary state secretary for research.
Marga stressed the importance of focusing our current efforts to lending the humanitarian help that is urgently needed in Ukraine. She also started a crowdsourcing exercise on Twitter to track the responses, actions and perspectives about the role of science diplomacy in connection to this war:
You can be a Science Diplomat!
When asked about how we can become citizen-science diplomats, Marga evoked the doctrines of Carl Sagan and the role space exploration plays to bring that sense of interconnectedness. “When you see Earth from space. We don’t see borders. We don’t see countries. We realize borders are artificial. We are one Earth. We need a planetary conscience.”
The views and opinions expressed herein do not imply endorsement from nor necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government or NASA.
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