The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the changes that have taken place in the field of science diplomacy in recent years. On the one hand, this war represents a drastic failure for science’s ability to prevent conflict. On the other hand, it has led to a renewed effort to apply science diplomacy beneficially in the future. Exploring the latest trends in science diplomacy reveals how the debate has evolved and what role science will play in international politics in the near future.
Science diplomacy is essentially the idea that scientific collaboration can improve relations between nations, because facilitating cooperation can build bridges and subtly influence behavior. In this way, science diplomacy acts as a kind of “soft power”. In Western countries, science has often been considered apolitical, thus providing a unique path to transcend cultural, national or political boundaries.
The impact that recent major events, including the COVID pandemic and Russian aggression against Ukraine, have had on science diplomacy can be seen most clearly in relations between the West and Russia.
Before this year, Russia was relatively integrated with the rest of the scientific world. UNESCO reports that between 2017 and 2019, almost a quarter of all Russian scientific research papers had foreign collaborators. This year, many Western scientists and scientific bodies ended their collaboration with Russia, such as CERN suspending Russia’s membership and the European Space Agency cutting ties. This therefore represents a failure of the previous liberal and collaborative vision of science diplomacy, harshly dissipating the ability of science to promote peace. Thus, it is fair to say that, at least as far as relations between Russia and the West are concerned, this era of science diplomacy ended in failure.
The first reason is that Russian science, as in many countries, has long been a product of politics. As a result, it is difficult to rise above the fray and achieve objectivity the way traditional science diplomacy strives for. This was clearly illustrated during the COVID pandemic, when vaccine development was politicized and the Russian vaccine Sputnik (itself named after an important Soviet scientific victory) was launched in Russia with great fanfare. In this context, for many Russian researchers (especially in key areas of collaboration like aerospace), the idea that science exists completely separate from politics is unrealistic. Science diplomacy therefore seems fanciful.
This problem is compounded by the Western attitude that science is never political. The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, for example, states that “research ideally develops independently of pressure from sponsors and from ideological, economic or political interests”. This means that scientific collaboration is often driven by bodies like universities or by personal relationships between researchers, making it difficult to integrate science into a larger national strategy.
Finally, while science diplomacy can have noble intentions, it remains to be seen whether it is really possible for science to have a pacifying effect on hostile relations. Despite the scientific nature of events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, public and governmental response has often subordinated science to politics. The Russian Academy of Sciences, for example, released a statement in March calling for a “cessation of hostilities” and urging the Russian government to pursue peace and science diplomacy. These complaints, however, fell on deaf ears. Therefore, while scientific collaboration can certainly influence policy-making, it remains difficult for science to unilaterally initiate major policy changes, especially when, as is the case in Russia, the issues are not are not explicitly scientific.
These issues require a change in approach to science diplomacy. Although it may seem that science diplomacy is ineffective, it can nevertheless have a key role to play. The pandemic and the climate crisis have shown that science is becoming increasingly important in the modern world, and are issues that affect the whole world, regardless of borders or national interests. By holding a key part of the solution to these problems, and by emphasizing cross-border cooperation, science diplomacy is particularly well placed to play a leading role in the years to come… provided it adapts to the evolution of the geopolitical context.
Recent months have seen increasing signs of a change in the conduct of science diplomacy, which represents a promising future path. Following the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, many countries, such as Canada, South Korea and Japan, have announced their intention to align themselves more closely with the EU’s Horizon Europe research funding project European.
At the same time as efforts have been made to increase cooperation between allies, more attention is also being paid to rethinking cooperation with potential future adversaries. The failure of science diplomacy in Russia and the disruption caused by the severing of ties this year means that many are changing their minds about the idea that science can be blind to politics. Jan Wöpking, director of the U15 group of German research universities, told Science Business this could be the start of a shift “towards a post-naive world of science cooperation and science diplomacy”.
This development therefore points to a new and completely different direction for science diplomacy. The days when international science operated without paying much attention to the political scene are over. Instead, science increasingly seems to coalesce around political blocs rather than operating freely. The adoption of COVID vaccines illustrates what this could look like, with countries preferring to authorize certain vaccines, usually those that they or countries friendly with them have made, while other countries, like many in the South, had significantly reduced access to technology. As the scientific community becomes politically polarized and collaboration between rival countries shrinks, different political blocs will begin to see differences emerge in the scientific sphere in a kind of “scientific nationalism”.
This change will have implications for how science diplomacy is conducted. By creating more partisan divisions in science, science’s potential to reconcile nations in conflict is inevitably diminished. On top of that, the development of science itself will be affected in some ways by reduced cooperation, as can now be seen with the loss of access to Russian scientists and research. Yet Russia’s actions have shown that science diplomacy lacks the ability to seriously change policy, and historical events like the space race indicate that competition can sometimes be beneficial for the growth of science. . So, while there are undoubtedly downsides to increasing scientific partisanship, they need not be fatal.
Instead, the new era of science diplomacy has the potential to strengthen existing relationships, bringing close countries even closer. Rather than the apolitical science of the past, science will most likely be used in the same way as the other tools in the soft power “arsenal,” as a means of emphasizing certain values consistent with national goals.
The difference in scientific capacities between the countries will also help to strengthen the relationship. An illustrative example is the decision of the British government in 2020, where, due to a lack of local 5G capacity, it decided to ban the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei in favor of Western suppliers. Internationally, we will most likely see greater government involvement in the development of science, as can be seen with the “operationalization” of science in the context of COVID-19 and Ukraine.
Overall, this new era represents a closer link between diplomacy and science, a link that solves many of the problems that science diplomacy has faced in recent years. As moral justice replaces moral ambiguity and regionalism replaces internationalism, a world beset by scientific problems may have found a new way to powerfully and peacefully project national values.