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A Foreign Policy for Universities: Science Diplomacy as Part of a Strategy

university networks

Our fascination with science transcends boundaries and borders. Even when political and economic differences pull us apart, our common interest in science bonds us together. Scientists want to work freely across borders, cultures, and politics. Students travel long distances to work with a compelling mentor. Networks of collaborators work together on grand challenges. Finding a solution to a global crisis require us to rapidly bring together the best experts from around the world. These situations illustrate the importance of science diplomacy throughout good times and bad.

Scientists are natural diplomats. Collaboration and education are our strengths. Universities can and should make the most of this potential.

I’ve been a proponent for science diplomacy for years. As the United States 2010 Science envoy to Central Asia and Caucasus, I saw first-hand how science transcends borders.1 I visited those countries, talked to their scientists, and gained a deeper appreciation of their perspectives on international collaboration and the enduring value of science diplomacy.

Science is inherently collaborative. We see the importance of sharing information, data, and expertise on COVID-19. We know that during the SARS epidemic in 2002, delays in sharing information cost lives. International scientific work should be the norm, not the exception. To make this happen, universities should augment their nation’s foreign policy with a synergistic apolitical one of their own. 

Networks, capacity building, and reciprocity are three important elements of a university’s foreign policy.

  1. Networks

Collaborative science creates networks that build upon relationships, reduce silos, and create opportunities to work together. These networks are strong because they are based on science and they can build bridges that transcend geopolitical differences.

In 2007, the European Research Council (ERC) began as an experiment. Since then, it has sponsored more than 9,500 projects throughout the European Union and associated countries.2 In addition, ERC grants bring universities the very best talent and collaborations. I see this at Imperial in Camille Petit’s work on advanced materials for CO2 capture3 and Ifan Stephens’s research to enable alternative, greener ways to synthesize ammonia4 leading him to join consortia in the EU and Canada.

Scientific collaborations bring new partners to the table. At Imperial, over 66 percent of our publications with a U.S. coauthor also have a European coauthor. Multinational collaborations produce breakthroughs.5 Molly Stevens collaborates with scientists in the U.S. and Sweden to develop cheaper, faster, and easier-to-use tests for diseases like cancer, malaria, heart failure, tuberculosis, and now COVID-19.6

We have the opportunity to build new bridges in other parts of the world. We should establish the multilateral structures needed to build, grow, and expand networks with new partners in places we have not traditionally collaborated and with scientists in places separated by political differences. Universities can do this by rewarding collaboration, creating seed grants to start new international partnerships,7 and advocating for government funding that encourages international collaboration. 

  1. Capacity building

We should place a special emphasis on building capacity in places that are up and coming and will be major contributors in the decades to come. Rather than engaging in a collaboration simply to help solve a regional challenge, we should develop working partnership that bring together senior researchers and their young colleagues and students. 

Combined mentoring of Ph.D. students is very powerful and a strong feature of our cohort-driven Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs).8  Having a second advisor from outside their department, university, or country gives students a richer and broader outlook.

It’s also important to expand a university’s foreign policy by collaborating with new partners as peers and colleagues. At Imperial we have been increasing our collaborations in Africa and we are benefitting from their expertise and talent. This includes a major partnership with the African Institute of Mathematics Sciences (AIMS) aimed explicitly at training the next generation of African scientists.9 Framing these new partnerships through a lens of science diplomacy and developing our joint goals and agenda together is a tremendous benefit to all.

On a national level, United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) are working together to strengthen research collaborations and enhance research capacity across African and UK research communities. We are excited about the aims of the partnership10 to build capacity for science, research, innovation, and knowledge exchange in both the UK and developing countries.

  1. Reciprocity

Two fundamental principles of diplomacy are mutual respect and reciprocity. In a university foreign policy, this means developing relationships where researchers and students visit each other’s campuses and share work and credit in joint projects. This is science diplomacy in action and provides us the opportunity to ensure that the next generation of scientists are also prepared to be diplomats as well.

The need to build networks, relationships, and capacity should be top of mind when we collaborate. We need to avoid the temptation to be the outside experts who take most of the credit. A colleague at Imperial has done extensive work in India. He insists that his collaborators there be the lead authors. As first authors they can take findings and recommendations to their governments far better than he can.

We must always make sure there are young scientists being trained through the research so they can carry on after we finish a project.

In this piece I have highlighted the power of science diplomacy for excellent science and preparing the next generation to take the lead. The combination of education and research is at the heart of our ability to discover, understand, and address the important questions facing humanity. Universities can strengthen and expand international collaborations in research and teaching by developing their own foreign policy and making it an essential part of their overall strategy. Doing this will optimize their efforts and build bridges that will help create an enduring understanding among nations.


  1. Alice Gast, “From Cold War to Warm Relations,” Science & Diplomacy (March 2012),
  2. European Research Council, “ERC Funded Projects,”
  3. David Danaci, Mai Bui, Niall Mac Dowell, and Camille Petit, “Exploring the Limits of Adsorption-based CO2 Capture using MOFs with PVSA–From Molecular Design to Process Economics,” Molecular Systems Design and Engineering 5 (2020): 212-231.
  4. Suzanne Z. Andersen, Viktor Čolić, Sungeun Yang, et al., “A Rigorous Electrochemical Ammonia Synthesis Protocol with Quantitative Isotope Measurements,” Nature 570 (2019): 504–508,
  5. Jonathan Adams and Karen A Gurney, The Implications of International Research Collaboration for UK Universities. Research Assessment, Knowledge Capacity and the Knowledge Economy
  6. Christopher S. Wood, Michael R. Thomas, Jobie Budd, et al., “Taking Connected Mobile-health Diagnostics of Infectious Diseases to the Field,” Nature 566 (2019): 467–474,
  7. Stephen Johns, “New European Collaborations Supported by Imperial Seed Fund,”
  8. See Imperial College London, Department of Mathematics, Centres for Doctoral Training, ;  Hayley Dunning, “Imperial Wins Funding to Train Hundreds of PhD Students at Six New Centres,”
  9. Stephen Johns, “Imperial and AIMS Launch Partnership to Train Future African Science Leaders,”
  10. UK Research and Innovation, “Global Challenges and Research Fund,”  
Capacity Building and Development January 2021: Special Issue