Diplomat John Holmes
Diplomat John Holmes helped envision Canada’s place in the world sixty years ago. Today, science diplomacy can help Canada define its role on the international stage. Credit: Trinity College Archives, F2260

Science Diplomacy as a Defining Role for Canada in the Twenty-First Century

Canada Americas

Sixty years ago, Canadian diplomat John Holmes developed a vision for Canada’s role in international relations. In a world defined by the ongoing Cold War between two superpowers, Holmes articulated a role for Canada as a “middle power.” He believed Canada should use its good name to increase peace, prevent conflict, and improve the lives of people everywhere.

The world has changed profoundly since Holmes developed that role for Canada in the 1950s. The Cold War has ended. China and the other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa) have emerged as major economic powers, terrorism has become a major threat to world peace, the widening gap between rich and poor nations threatens to cause further destabilization, and the world has lost confidence in the United Nations as a vehicle for multilateral initiatives.

It is in this new world that Canada is struggling to define its role on the international stage.

While much has changed in international relations, Canada continues to be recognized around the world for its strong traditions of democracy, transparency, and civility, its concern for the common good, the high value it places on multiculturalism and diversity, and for having one of the world’s strongest and most respected public education systems. In an interview with University Affairs, Canada’s governor general David Johnston summarized the country’s values well when he stated, “We believe in peace, order, and good government. We believe in collective responsibility for our communities. We believe in building institutions that provide opportunities for our citizens.”

Michael Byers, the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, remarked in his book Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For? that Canada’s role should be “maintaining and improving the quality of life of all its citizens…and addressing global developments such as climate change that threaten the safety and well-being of all. And it should be about improving the lot of human beings everywhere.”

Canada’s values, assets, and goals lend themselves to being a driver of soft power. Arguably, one of the most effective means for Canada to exercise this soft diplomacy is through science diplomacy. Therefore, science is critical to increasing Canada’s global influence in the twenty-first century.

Canada’s values, assets, and goals lend themselves to being a driver of soft power.

There are many reasons to consider science diplomacy as an important pillar of Canadian foreign policy. First, the fruits of science have transformed the world, improving the lives of people everywhere. And it’s not only the Western world that has benefited. Significant increases in agricultural productivity; the availability of vaccines and antibiotics with the resulting improvements in health outcomes, such as the eradication of smallpox; and improvements in maternal and child health have also benefited the developing world.

Second, science is intrinsically a global activity that transcends language, political affiliations, and geography. As Louis Pasteur said, “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Today, modern science is increasingly characterized by large teams of researchers from many countries and even more institutions working together to address important questions in health research, physics, the environment, and other fields. Simply put, science brings people together.

Third, because the culture of science is one of openness—of accepting nothing based on authority or superstition or ideology but on evidence—science has been a powerful voice against repression and closed societies as well as the oxygen that fuels a culture of curiosity and innovation. The story of Galileo is perhaps the most well known example of science challenging contemporary dogma. But the role of science in helping to support the values of a democratic society continues to this day. Think of the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, HIV as the cause of AIDS, and the link between fossil fuel combustion and climate change. In each case, it has been the scientific community championing the cause of scientific evidence and the public interest in the face of political, ideological, commercial, or religious interests. And in so doing, they have strengthened the case for an open, transparent society. And as noted by PCAST (the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) in its November 2012 Report to the President, Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise, “Education that is not continually enriched by the freedom of research and ever-deepening understandings will fade into an uninspiring endeavor of imposed ideas and outdated concepts.”

Science is critical to increasing Canada’s global influence in the twenty-first century.

Fourth, today’s pressing challenges—the widening gap between rich and poor; global climate change; the need for sustainable forms of energy; food and water security; disease; and terrorism, among others—require coordinated global research. Global challenges, by their nature, are not unique to any one country. Nor can these challenges be solved by one country; they are shared challenges, and must be addressed collectively. Combating climate change, improving public health, and maintaining biodiversity are not only Canadian objectives, just as food and water security and disease are not just African concerns.

Finally, science is key to global trade and economic development. The United States provides a good example of how science diplomacy can contribute to the larger diplomatic landscape. Americans have been quick to appreciate that many developing and developed nations have prioritized science and technology as central to their economic and development strategies.

Under former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s leadership, U.S. foreign policy has widened its views about the importance of soft diplomacy. This emphasis was undoubtedly influenced by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and senior policy advisor to Secretary Clinton. Slaughter has argued for the importance of global connectivity and the centrality of connections to global leadership. She said in Foreign Affairs, “In this world, the state with the most connections will be the central player…if power is derived from connectivity, then the focus of leadership should be on making connections to solve shared problems.”

Global challenges, by their nature, are not unique to any one country.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has extended this idea to argue that the country with the world’s highest ranked universities will always attract the best and brightest talent from around the world to its shores. And in an age where talent is the most valued natural resource, investing in higher education is one of the best strategies a country can employ to maintain its preeminence in the twenty-first century.

Most governments, including Canada’s, have greatly increased their investments in science and technology as a way to stimulate innovation and enhance their country’s competitive position. At the same time, they have focused foreign policy goals on improving trade that leads to economic growth on the home front.

Science diplomacy presents a win-win scenario, offering the opportunity to leverage investments in science and technology to spur economic growth, while achieving other soft diplomacy goals and improving conditions for the world population.

At the end of the Second World War, there was great hope that the United Nations would provide the global governance mechanism to coordinate response to shared challenges. Today, that hope has largely evaporated, and new governance mechanisms that can elevate national efforts are needed at the intergovernmental level. Global science now requires international cooperation at a scale and complexity that is unprecedented in both size and scope. The global scientific community, including Canada’s research community, has demonstrated that cooperation and collaboration can occur at the grassroots level, transcending national boundaries, culture, language, and politics. Stopping the spread of the ozone layer, eradicating smallpox, the discovery of the Higgs boson, sequencing the human genome and now cancer genomes, and dramatically increasing crop yields are just a few examples where the global scientific community has come together to advance and successfully address questions of universal importance.

And so, if one of the strategic goals of Canada’s diplomatic efforts is to improve the lives of people everywhere, science offers Canada a second-to-none tool to achieve one of its key roles. The new peacekeeping force of the twenty-first century is not made up of soldiers. It is made up of scientists, diplomats, and others working together to address global challenges.

Canada could also play a critical role in leading a global conversation on different models of research governance. This conversation would have important implications for how challenges are identified and approached, while positioning Canada at the center of these important discussions.

CIFAR (the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research) is one example of how Canadian institutions and Canada’s scientific community are contributing to a national effort in science diplomacy. For more than thirty years, CIFAR has been bringing together extraordinary people from across Canada and the world to address questions of global importance. CIFAR’s twelve global research networks, clustered into four broad themes (building strong societies, sustaining the earth, transforming technology, and improving human health), bring together close to four hundred fellows and advisers from 104 institutions in sixteen countries. This is truly an example of Canadian science diplomacy at work.

In a world in which knowledge, and the technologies that flow from knowledge, has become a major driver of economic wellbeing, Canadian trade and foreign policies should reflect that new reality. In a knowledge economy, the ideas or intellectual property generated in one company, or one university, frequently—and indeed usually—acquire value only when combined with ideas from another organization. Knowledge-based organizations, therefore, are constantly looking for synergies and complementary talent anywhere in the world. For a nation that aspires to lead as a knowledge economy, Canada’s embassies and high commissions should place the highest priority on science as a way of building relationships, opening doors, and creating opportunities for exchange between local players and those in Canada’s nascent knowledge-based economy. Knowledge companies need individuals trained in science who can help them identify promising partners and facilitate partnerships.

Pipelines that transport oil and gas between countries have clear economic value for Canada today; pipelines full of ideas and scientifically trained individuals will help build a Canada for tomorrow.

Canada’s investments in science and higher education should not be siloed off as solely an instrument to increase innovation on the domestic front and to reverse the decline in Canada’s productivity. Rather, these investments should be an essential pillar of Canadian foreign policy and should permeate all thinking about Canada’s role and how Canada can make a positive difference in this complex, rapidly changing world. Such a shift would take advantage of, and align with, the significant investments made by successive Canadian governments in science and technology. Canada’s strong science base is not just a future driver of the economy—importantly, it is also a means to define Canada’s place in the world.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Canada to assume a leading role in science diplomacy is the nation’s young people. Young Canadians, like their counterparts elsewhere, are increasingly globally oriented. They see themselves as world citizens and are looking to their country to forge the global coalitions and partnerships necessary to address the significant challenges the planet faces. They are actively looking for opportunities that match their international and idealistic aspirations with practical problem solving. Canada needs to create those opportunities and, in so doing, create a powerful magnet to attract the world’s brightest young people.

During the 1950s, Canada carved out a key role as an honest broker, trusted by both sides in the Cold War and in other conflicts. Today, Canada has a key role to play as a knowledge broker, ensuring that the fruits, ethos, and values of science and the knowledge and technology benefitting Canadians are available to people everywhere. In these efforts, science diplomacy can and should be central to the nation’s foreign policy.

This article is based on the 2012 John Holmes Memorial Lecture, given at Glendon College in Toronto, Ontario, on November 12, 2012.

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