AAAS-TWAS course on science diplomacy
The author interacting with one of the participants at the 2017 AAAS-TWAS course on science diplomacy in Trieste, Italy. Credit: TWAS

Growing Our Own Timber: Perspectives and Experiences from the Field on Training the Next Generation of Science Diplomats

My journey of international partnerships and science diplomacy started nearly 35 years ago. As an undergraduate carrying helium tanks into the Amazon basin, a master’s student failing to coordinate international coauthors, a Ph.D. student working to mend broken trust with researchers in Namibia, and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg under South Africa’s first democratically elected government, I learned lessons about power and hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, collaboration and engagement, team-building, and joint ventures. Those were further augmented by my experiences as the U.S. Principal Investigator of the Southern African Regional Science Initiative known as SAFARI 20001 and Director of a regional knowledge network known as the Eastern Virginia Networks and Associations (ESAVANA).2 Experience as a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Mozambique days after 9/11, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Global Dialogues on Emerging Science and Technology – African delegation, and as a U.S. Embassy Science Fellow in Namibia yielded even richer perspectives and lessons upon which I draw.

I have had the privilege of sharing a number of these lessons as a lecturer for science diplomacy training programs organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the Academy of Science of South Africa, and the São Paulo School of Advanced Science on Science and Innovation Diplomacy.3 The perspectives I share here are gleaned from these experiences as well as interactions with students; early, mid- and late career scientists; diplomats; science diplomats; and political leaders, many of whom were involved with international scientific collaborations and partnerships. This paper draws heavily on holistic approaches to educating STEM students that I have previously presented4 and shares suggested approaches designed to establish a firm foundation of the intrapersonal, interpersonal, cross-disciplinary, and cross-cultural skills that science diplomacy requires.

Diplomacy can be thought of in very general terms as the art and science of maintaining peaceful relationships between nations, groups, or individuals.5 As such, those engaged with diplomacy tend to share some fundamental attributes, including but not limited to the ability to communicate, the desire to understand before making oneself understood, the ability to manage uncertainty, and the ability to ask the right question over and above the desire to have the right answer. Science diplomacy can be thought of as leveraging science and the methods of science to build trust and develop relationships around shared challenges and goals.6 In addition to the aforementioned skills, those engaging in science diplomacy also require proficiency, if not expertise, in one or more scientific subject matter areas.

COVID-19 has once again reminded the world that the wellbeing of the global community is directly connected to the actions of other nations, groups, and individuals over whom we have no real control. Science diplomacy offers a way to educate and influence decision makers and the general public with fact-based, scientific information on the most appropriate and responsible ways to tackle cross-border crises. As discussed by renowned science diplomat trainer Dr. Marga Gual Soler, COVID-19 has challenged those educators in this field to address the following question: How do we train and deploy the next generation of science diplomats to anticipate and better manage future crises?7 In essence, how do we in the field “grow our own timber”? I posit that we need to start earlier in a student’s career.


Growing Our Own Timber

There is growing recognition that the next generation of science diplomats needs both sufficient scientific subject matter expertise and the requisite intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.8 Undergraduate and graduate curricula would be wise to supplement that subject matter training with those interpersonal skills by:

  • Moving from didactic to constructivist pedagogies
  • Exposing students to the concepts of uncertainty, unpredictability, and complexity
  • Incorporating training in leadership skills and reinforcing their value in STEM curricula
  • Introducing experiential education and putting knowledge into action earlier in the curriculum
  • Framing collaborative activities as joint ventures where asset-based approaches ensure that all stakeholders have equity in the process
  • Educating students to build resilient systems that will fail safely rather than fail-safe systems


The “C-P-R” Framework

The educational “C-P-R” framework was developed at the University of Virginia in conjunction with international partners to support courses in international service learning and community engagement, global development, resilience theory and practice, servant leadership, and ethics, protocols, and practice of international research. These courses sought to challenge existing frames of references of both students and faculty engaging in international partnerships with aspirations to become researchers engaging in diplomacy, if not science diplomats. The C-P-R framework consists of the “5 C’s” (CuriosityCultureContext/connectionCivic engagement, and Co-construction), the “3 P’s” (People first, then Process followed by Product),9 and the foundational tenets of the “3 R’s” (RespectReciprocity, and Relationship).10

First, students were required to extend their curiosity beyond their particular discipline, research more deeply the culture and history of their proposed partners, and enhance their contextual awareness of their international partners’ institutions and connections. Instructors also emphasized civic engagement and approaching these engagements as joint ventures where both students and their partners would co-construct the research project.

Second, instructional staff emphasized putting people first as students pursued their research. Respectfully engaging with people required students to be present, actively listen, seek to understand before being understood, and respect all contributions from their partners regardless of form. Both students and staff found that by placing people first and adhering to a process of collaborative research, that a more mutually beneficial outcome and knowledge product would be likely.

Finally, all C-P-R framework syllabi built off of the foundational tenets of the 3 R’s. Students demonstrated respect by doing the necessary preparatory work, remaining humble, adhering to protocols and social/cultural norms of their partners wherever possible. Students were instructed to look for reciprocal opportunities and to collaboratively develop as many win-win opportunities as possible. Importantly, students were educated on three general types of relationships: extractive, transactional, and transformative. An extractive, one-sided, research relationship was demonstrated with examples of colonial approaches of unethical medical and bioprospecting research. Transactional relationships, based on fees for service, lack depth and do not enhance other forms of capital and valuing anything other than financial contributions among the partners. Whenever possible, students were challenged to move beyond business-as-usual extractive and transactional approaches and pursue transformative relationships that seek to amplify impacts beyond the immediate.


An Intellectual Apprenticeship as a Continuum of Learning

Academics engaging in science diplomacy have an opportunity to create a continuum of engagement among students, faculty, mentors, and practitioners. At the University of Virginia, we saw this continuum as an opportunity to implement the C-P-R framework while developing an intellectual apprenticeship for students wanting a more engaged, interdisciplinary STEM education.11 This five-stage apprenticeship from Swap and Wayland (2014) can be intelligently borrowed from in a manner appropriate for the development of early professional skills necessary for science diplomats.

The five stages can be summarized as follows:

  1. Snow Globe: create cognitive dissonance by challenging a student’s frame of reference – much like shaking up a snow globe – challenging the student to stretch into potentially uncomfortable areas. Pedagogical examples include the use of guest speakers from differing perspectives and cultures, the use of guided meditation, topical readings, and interdisciplinary team work.  
  1. Water Wings: provide opportunities for students to test-drive some of these concepts – much like children’s initial forays into swimming pools with water wings – thereby allowing the students an opportunity to fail or succeed while under the watchful eye of instructors. Examples include experiential learning exercises such as simulated negotiations on science diplomacy topics and presentations to unfamiliar audiences.
  1. Summer Camp: provide students an off-campus opportunity – much like heading off to summer camp – to put their knowledge into action, this time under the watchful eye of mentors, practitioners, and community members.12 With newfound independence comes uncertainty and the need to reconfigure plans while negotiating challenges that almost always arise when working with others. Pedagogical examples include intersession externships that match graduate students with international partners and a faculty mentor.
  1. Decanting the Wine and Letting it Breathe: undertake the process of meaning-making, letting the essence of the co-created experience come to the fore through reflection and introspection – much like decanting a wine allows its true essence to develop. Pedagogical examples include daily journaling, guided reflection and meditation circles, and reflection paper assignments, where participants are guided to reflect upon the themes.
  1. Handoff: conduct the transmission of knowledge, whether formally or informally, from one student cohort to the next or from stakeholder to stakeholder – much like how a baton is handed off in a relay race. Examples include students presenting to their partners before they leave the field on what they have learned from their collaboration and alumni sharing their experiences with subsequent cohorts or organizing train-the-trainer programs to amplify and extend their experiences.

Problem- and project-based learning and service-learning activities challenge student and faculty participants to understand how real-world problems know no disciplinary boundaries. Learners come to see the assignments as opportunities to create joint ventures amongst diverse stakeholders to address an expressed need of their partners. The students are then able to put their knowledge into action in a structured, mentored way, understanding the cultural, context, and connectedness between stakeholders, with little risk to either themselves or their community partners.

Our experience from more than a decade of utilizing the C-P-R framework and the Intellectual Apprenticeship, both in the classroom and the field, domestically and internationally, was that most if not all of our students went from being passive consumers of knowledge seeking credentialing to seeing themselves as active owners and stakeholders in the joint venture of their education. Furthermore, we saw the knock-on effect of expanding the social capital of alumni and regional knowledge networks that grow with each subsequent iteration of the program.13 We considered these frameworks successfully implemented when our students and faculty were welcome to return to work with their community partners beyond the duration of a given project. 


Humility over Hubris

As educators, we must challenge not only our students’ frames of reference but also our own. I often challenge those I work with by asserting that everyone I meet is an expert because they know something that I don’t. Educators, mentors, and practitioners should model humility regarding what they do and do not know, where and from whom they can learn, and what biases they may have that inhibit the development of humility. We should never underestimate the powerful reinforcement of “walking the walk.”

A colleague of mine, Dr. Masingita Zwane, who spent much of her medical career serving former homeland areas in South Africa, stressed the importance of understanding partners and their needs through the different lenses of perceivedimposed, and expressed needs. The first lens is one where a deficit-based mindset contributes to focusing on what a partner lacks, rather than what a partner possesses. This mindset leads to seeing partners as in need even before consulting them and contributes to community partner sentiment along the lines of “we were fine until you came along and told us we weren’t.” Using the second lens, one does not even bother trying to perceive a need because one already has a “solution in search of a problem” ready to be imposed. I have seen this firsthand in underserved regions where people and organizations from the outside rush in to deploy technological and medical solutions, often without consulting in-region partners.14 And the last lens, that of expressed needs, is the one where partners trust one another and are comfortable with expressing what they truly need. I can hear the words of my former advisor ringing in my head: “Swap, always trust the person in the field when they request something – don’t try to second guess them because they know what they need on the ground!” These three lenses can also be applied to understanding a potential partner’s capabilities, assets, and/or wisdom. The importance to science diplomacy of understanding and recognizing these different perceptions, both our own and our partners’, and exhibiting humility in the process, cannot be overemphasized.

Much of what I learned along the way from undergraduate to practitioner was accomplished by being present, learning by doing, and trial and error. I still continue to revisit, retrain, and reshape my skills as a student, educator, mentor, and practitioner. As part of that process, I purposefully look for teachable moments to better share what I have learned. These moments can be found almost anywhere if one is present and humble enough to be open to them. While the current COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the global community, it has also provided educators with the opportunity to challenge business-as-usual approaches to STEM education in general and science diplomacy education in particular. My sincerest hope is that the reader can intelligently borrow from what I have presented in this letter and can apply it in a contextually appropriate manner to realize that opportunity.



The author wishes to acknowledge Dr. Marga Gual Soler and an anonymous editor for their insightful comments and editing, which greatly improved the manuscript. The author would also like to acknowledge Vaughan Turekian, Norm Neuwriter, Tom Wang, Marga Gual Soler, Mahlet Mesfin, formerly of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and as well as their counterparts at The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries, Romain Murenzi, Peter McGrath, Sara Dalafi, Antonino Coppola, and Edward Lempinen, for supporting my efforts related to science diplomacy.



The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of NASA, where the author currently works.



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  2. Myanna Lahsen et al., “The Contributions of Regional Knowledge Networks Researching Environmental Changes in Latin America and Africa: A Synthesis of What They Can Do and Why They Can Be Policy Relevant,” Ecology and Society 18, no. 3 (2013),
  3. To the author’s best knowledge, he was the only lecturer invited to all five in-person AAAS-TWAS courses in Trieste, Italy and Pretoria, South Africa and the two Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshops in Washington, D.C.
  4. Jennifer M. Gidley, “Futures of Education for Rapid Global-Societal Change,” in There’s a Future: Visions for a Better World (Madrid, Spain: BBVA, 2012), 395–419; Robert J. Swap and Kent Wayland, “Working Across Disciplines and Chipping Away at Silos with SLCE: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Educating Science and Engineering Students,” International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering (2013): 120–136 and references therein; Robert J. Swap and Jonathan Walter, “An Approach to Engaging Students in a Large-Enrollment, Introductory STEM College Course,” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 15, no. 5 (2015): 1–21.
  5. National Geographic, s.v. “Diplomacy,” last modified July 22, 2011,
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  7. Marga Gual Soler, “A Personal Reflection on Science Diplomacy & COVID-19,” International Network for Government Science Advice, January 2021,
  8. Jean-Christophe Mauduit and Marga Gual Soler, “Building a Science Diplomacy Curriculum,” Frontiers in Education 5 (2020); Lorenzo Melchor, “What Is a Science Diplomat?” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 15, no. 3 (2020): 409–423.
  9. Nicholas Allen, Rachel Boots, Michael Bugas, Arianna Parsons, and Robert Swap, “Arriving as Strangers, Welcomed as Friends: Student Reflections on Mindsets, Equity, and Partnerships in International Service-Learning,” Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship 7, no. 1 (2014): 90.
  10. Eric Harshfield, Ana Jemec, Ofhani Makhado, and Elias Ramarumo, “Water purification in Rural South Africa: Ethical Analysis and Reflections on Collaborative Community Engagement Projects in Engineering,” International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering 4, no. 1 (2009): 1–14.
  11. Swap and Wayland, “Working Across Disciplines,” 120–136.
  12. Caroline M. Berinyuy, Hallie Eilerts, Marguerite McDaniel, Dillon F. Chapman, Shirley Pendlebury, Claudia J. Ford, and Robert J. Swap, “The Adaptive Cycle as a Lens for Service Learning–Community Engagement Partnerships,” Partnerships: A Journal of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement 5, no. 2 (2014): 153–177,
  13. Loren Intolubbe-Chmil, Carol Anne Spreen, and Robert J. Swap, “Transformative Learning: Participant Perspectives on International Experiential Education.” Journal of Research in International Education 11, no. 2 (August 2012): 165–80,; Lahsen et al., “The Contributions of Regional Knowledge Networks”; Annegarn and Swap, “SAFARI 2000.”
  14. Clare M. Terni, “Encountering Developers in the Field,” Anthropology News 50, no. 3 (2009): 27.
Capacity Building and Development January 2021: Special Issue