Bill and Kim
Photo credit: Matthew Sharp

Opportunities and Challenges for Science Diplomacy

#SciDipTurns10 international cooperation partnerships Americas

Science & Diplomacy was launched in 2012 to catalyze greater discussion about the issues at the interface of science and diplomacy. Throughout its first decade, it has been a space for rigorous thought, analysis, and insight into science diplomacy topics by a diverse group of scientific and foreign affairs stakeholders.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, we put together an anniversary issue with pieces from many of the original contributors. These authors reflect on their publications from 2012 and offer their views on the most important issues facing science diplomacy today. They look at whether the original issues discussed have changed over the past 10 years and at the major challenges and opportunities that science diplomacy is facing now. The pieces discuss a wide range of topics, from international scientific facilities to issues of international trust, the need for global solutions, the value of local partnerships, and a review of science diplomacy efforts in Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, and Yemen.

This milestone provides us a moment for reflection. Instead of focusing on the past accomplishments of science diplomacy, which have been numerous, and many of which involved the authors in this anniversary issue and our Editor-in-Chief, we would like to focus on the future of science diplomacy.

Our starting point is one of optimism. We are encouraged by how science and diplomacy can work together to address national, regional, and global challenges. We strongly believe in the power of science as a mechanism to engage with other countries and build stronger bilateral and multilateral ties. However, we are not blind optimists, but instead are pragmatists and recognize that science diplomacy operates in a context, and one that has become ever more challenging and complex.

The continued invasion of Ukraine is altering relationships across Europe and beyond and is likely to have political and economic implications for decades to come. The relationship between the U.S. and Russian governments has become much more difficult. Challenging relationships also have been seen between the U.S. government and the governments of Iran and Cuba. And the relationship between the U.S. and Chinese government has become more competitive.

Governments are imposing new rules and restrictions on international scientific collaboration, and they are considering limiting the topics of collaboration because of possible implications for national security and defense. Discussions among governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders are increasingly focused on whether international scientific collaboration should be encouraged primarily among nations that share the same standards and values.

One might argue we have moved from an era of “engagement and cooperation” into a new era of “competition and cooperation” in international science. This shift is a reminder that science diplomacy is not above politics. This has always been true, but in this changing and complicated landscape, it may mean that politics could impact science diplomacy even more.

This new era does not change the value of science diplomacy. Science diplomacy is and will remain an essential tool for the scientific and foreign affairs enterprise. It supports the advancement of diplomatic goals by providing scientific expertise for international agreements, furthers scientific goals by utilizing the diplomatic community to reduce roadblocks that inhibit collaboration, and advances diplomatic goals by focusing international scientific engagement to build better relations between countries.

Yet, this does not mean that science diplomacy will not be impacted by this new era. It will be. Scientific cooperation between certain countries, such as the U.S. and China, will likely be less robust than it has been in recent decades. A growing number of relationships between countries may become estranged, potentially leading to severed diplomatic ties.

Science diplomacy is facing a different and changing landscape. But this is not the time to throw up our hands and become cynical about the power of science diplomacy to affect change and reduce conflict. Instead, this new era calls for strengthening our efforts. If more countries have strained relationships, using the soft power of science to maintain and improve informal relationships is even more important. If the world is going to make progress on problems like climate change, international cooperation is essential. Articulating the fact that fostering international scientific collaboration remains in the national interest of a country is imperative.

This anniversary is a moment to celebrate the achievements of the past decade, but it also is a time to pause and think how we best can cultivate an ecosystem for science diplomacy to be successful in this new era. We are focused on re-engaging our efforts and look forward to working with partners around the globe to ensure that as a science diplomacy community we are effectively meeting this moment and that we will have a new set of accomplishments to celebrate during Science & Diplomacy’s 20th anniversary.

Diplomacy for Science Science for Diplomacy Science in Diplomacy A Decade of Science & Diplomacy