The daily endeavors of a scientist may seem very distinct from those of a political diplomat. The public may imagine that scientific progress is driven by the work of scientists working methodically and in isolation in laboratories around the world. In contrast, the idea of a political diplomat likely conjures a different image – one that involves groups of politicians forming alliances and guiding negotiations between multiple organizations and nations. But, science is a similarly collaborative effort that often requires coordination between different groups to improve available tools and advance knowledge. Science and diplomacy can even benefit one another. Science can provide the data and frameworks necessary to initiate and inform diplomatic talks while at the same time, diplomacy can create opportunities that improve the way we do science.

Science as a topic of Diplomacy

Science is at the heart of many international diplomatic discussions. For example, nuclear research has been a hot topic in international politics for the past 60 years. Nuclear research has enabled us to harness the power of nuclear fission for nuclear energy, but it has also resulted in the creation of nuclear arms that have led to a great deal of destruction. To ensure nuclear research continues in a safe and responsible manner, nations have worked together to develop a system of oversight and accountability. These diplomatic efforts have resulted in the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose early slogan was “Atoms for Peace.” This agency provides technical guidelines and assistance to countries for safe use of tools and techniques involving nuclear and radioactive materials. It also attempts to make public the development of nuclear arms programs in countries around the world so that other world leaders can take appropriate action. The International Atomic Energy Agency is a model for how scientists and policy makers can share information and work toward shared interests.

Climate change is another major driver of international diplomatic negotiations. The impact of climate change on people’s lives is largely unpredictable and non-uniform across different regions. In response, national leaders similarly vary in their willingness to consent to international agreements concerning means to cut green house gas emissions. While the scientific consensus is that greenhouse-gas emissions are a major cause of global warming, the debate surrounding climate change at the global diplomatic level concerns the methods that should be employed to slow global warming and which countries should carry the brunt of the socioeconomic responsibility.

The Kyoto Protocol, written in 1997, was an international agreement that required participating countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The greatest responsibility for these reductions fell on developed countries, like the United States and those in Europe, who emitted much of the greenhouse gas during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, in 2001, the United States withdrew its support of the Protocol, in objection to the quality of the Protocol’s goals, recognizing that rapidly industrializing countries like China and India now emit more greenhouse gases from fossil fuels than high-income countries. Meanwhile, low-income countries, including many island nations soon to be overcome by rising sea levels, want immediate action that will stop climate change and help these countries adapt to future changes. Last November, the United Nations held the Doha Climate Change conference, one of a series of conferences held to devise an internationally supported plan of action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The result was not a consensus on the means and measurements of reducing emissions per country. Instead, the Kyoto Protocol was extended through 2020 and participating countries discussed the right of island nations to be compensated for adaptation costs. Since all 196 countries in the world are a part of this conversation, climate change negotiations are difficult but imperative in the face of the impending effects of climate change.

A speaker at the Doha 2012 conference. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State. (Click image to enlarge.)

Ultimately, science can help provide the data – models forecasting future climate changes, predicted outcomes of different strategies – that help frame climate change discussions, but decisions on what policy to pursue will require frank and democratic deliberations that balance the needs and interests of all stakeholders.

Diplomacy to improve science

Sometimes diplomacy is used to make new scientific tools available and to facilitate intellectual exchange. After the Second World War, European scientists in the field of nuclear physics imagined an organization that would increase collaboration across Europe and coordinate cost sharing for the building and maintenance of the facilities this research required. This idea resulted in the formation of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. The political negotiations to manage the shared operating costs and the use of CERN facilities, like the Large Hadron Collider, by over half of the world’s physicists from many different nations and academic institutions are now carried out within the CERN framework to manage the shared operating costs and the use of the facilities, like the Large Hadron Collider, by over half of the world’s physicists. This use of diplomacy has enabled many important discoveries, including the most recent discovery of the Higgs Boson. Other organizations that are the result of global collaboration include ITER, former known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, for the development of nuclear fusion for energy production, the Square Kilometre Array for the design of the world’s largest radio telescope, and the International Space Station for space exploration. All of the above organizations have helped scientists overcome technical (and financial) challenges in their respective fields that they would not have surmounted on their own.

Science to improve Diplomacy

Beyond the contentious subjects of nuclear proliferation and climate change, science can be a tool to improve diplomatic relations between conflicting nations. The former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University Dr. Joseph Nye, Jr., noted that “soft power,” such as international cultural and intellectual collaborations between international groups, helps maintain a positive global attitude between participating nations and can result in favorable political alliances. Scientific collaborations are a powerful example of soft power, since science is internationally respected as an impartial endeavor.

The United States is using science as soft power in its diplomatic relations between Yemen, North Korea, and others. Yemen currently suffers from multiple social and environmental issues, including a large influx of African refugees, displaced Yemenis due to internal conflict, and a disappearing water supply. Each person in Yemen is estimated to have access to only 136 cubic meters of freshwater per person, well below the “water poverty line” set by the United Nations Development Program at 1000 cubic meters per person. This large gap can only be overcome with improvements in water technology that are innovative and sustainable. Toward this end, American and Yemeni scientists, engineers and students met last summer in Jordan, another water poor country, for a conference hosted by the Middle East Scientific Institute for Security to discuss strategies for better water management and to establish collaborations. While limited in impact, this conference was an indirect way for the US to practically demonstrate its support for the people of Yemen and to shift favor away from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of the international Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Thus, meetings like this, in conjunction with political support, military support and development aid, are a part of the US’s efforts to improve diplomatic ties with Yemen, as well as combat the spreading influence of extremist groups.

As was the case for the conception of CERN, the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) is the result of interest among Middle Eastern nuclear physicists to have a local laboratory dedicated to the nuclear science. The construction of SESAME in Jordan will bring scientists in the region much closer to facilities similar to those found at institutions like CERN. While SESAME necessitated diplomacy for scientific advancement, the scientific leadership involved in establishing SESAME set the stage for the unlikely diplomatic relations between Iran, Palestine, and Israel, among others. This practical collaboration for the pursuit of science has the unique potential to ease the hostilities between these countries. It also serves as an example of how scientists can make an impact beyond their respective fields.

Traditionally, science training does not include instruction on how to engage with the public or with politicians. But in our increasingly globalized world, environmental and technological issues are shared problems. These problems require scientists to share their knowledge with the public, politicians, and colleagues in their own countries and others around the world. It requires science itself to be a more international endeavor. Used properly, science and diplomacy can complement each other and help tackle the many problems facing our world today.

Nicole Espy is a second year PhD student in Biological Sciences of Public Health at Harvard University.

Further Reading

1. Science & Diplomacy; American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): .

2. New Frontiers on Science Diplomacy: Navigating the changing balance of power; Royal Society and AAAS: .

3. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change: .

4. History highlights; CERN: .

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