Science diplomacy for Europe in a globalized 21st century

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

In defining the geopolitical landscape of the current information age, knowledge has become as powerful as access to natural resources. Science and technology are often regarded as performance indicators of economic growth. At the same time, globalization is rapidly changing the way societies and nations interact. Within this environment of shifting paradigms, Europe finds itself in a unique socio-economic and political state that requires a thorough rethinking of traditional concepts of science diplomacy.

Traditionally, science diplomacy serves to advance the economic and political interests of nations. Science and innovation have always played a major role in defining the local and global power balance. On the one hand, knowledge brings power through advanced (military) technologies that can (de)stabilize political relations. On the other hand, scientific collaboration provides a strong incentive to avoid conflict and increase socio-economic welfare. As such, science diplomacy provides an additional instrument for improving international relations: bridging the world through science.

The classical concept of science diplomacy originates from the AAAS in the United States and emphasizes a strong centralized government that manages three types of activities:

- “Science in diplomacy”: Science provides advice to inform and support foreign policy objectives.

- “Diplomacy for science”: Diplomacy facilitates international scientific cooperation.

- "Science for diplomacy”: Scientific cooperation improves international relations.

This model covers the basic aspects of science diplomacy but its applicability to the European geopolitical state of affairs is limited, as there are several crucial differences between Europe and the United States:

1. In contrast to the federal organization of the United States or central government in China, Europe is a union of sovereign nations. Although the European Commission and Parliament have some jurisdiction over individual member states, the executive power lies in the local governments.The traditional model is not suitable for current pluralistic civil societies where democratic governance has become more important than government.

2. As a consequence, European science policies are forced to align and require a wider consensus and understanding. In contrast to the United States and China, Europe often needs a ‘bottom up’ approach when developing policy.

3. Europe struggles to develop science policies that go beyond the post-war concept of socio-economic integration.

Why should our views of science diplomacy be revisited?

There are several motives why it is important to re-evaluate the role of science diplomacy now:

1. The changing geo-political landscape of the post-colonial and post-authoritarian world (challenges to European integration, the resurfacing of nationalism, isolationism, and populism in Europe and the United States, the upcoming economy of China, Russia struggling with its current position, ideological and political differences within the middle east). Moreover, there is a clear need to deal with global topics like mass migrations, climate change, water resources, geo-economics.

2. Societies are rapidly changing: the internet has effectively shattered the knowledge-monopoly of scientists. Traditional tasks of the government are taken over by multi-lateral and transnational non-state actors. Moreover, the globalization of knowledge is proceeding at a much faster pace than the globalization of government and society. This requires a repositioning of scientists in society, away from the ivory tower.

3. The academic landscape transitions from pure-knowledge generation towards applied research. This transition coincides with budget cuts and the implementation of a competitive ‘capitalistic’ approach to research funding. This has changed the academic landscape and research focus towards short-term objectives and ‘hot topics’. Scientists should actively inform policy-makers and the general public about the nature of science. There is no absolute knowledge. Proper action is required to counter the negative consequences of the ‘run for impact’. Is competition actually the right incentive to stimulate excellent science?

4. Governments exploit science to advance their political agendas and justify their policies. On the one extreme, ‘fake news’ and misinformation have replaced propaganda as a tool to manipulate public opinion. The scientific community should actively participate in countering these developments. Scientists have a task in providing the right perspective and placing their findings in the proper context.

5. National academies of science, which traditionally organized the scientific communities, are rapidly losing their relevance. Individual interest groups and lobbyists, driven by short-term (financial) interests, put their topics directly on the political agenda.

We therefore see a clear need to redefine science diplomacy, based on the current (European) state of affairs. This new approach should consider the triangular relations between scientists, politicians, and the public (based on consensus and trust). Scientists can take on several roles that relate to the three aspects of classical science diplomacy: information broker, lobbyist, or science advocate. The challenge is to clearly define and delineate these roles, as scientists who speak up risk to lose credibility from the internal or external community. These issues can be overcome through the implementation of (inter)disciplinary consensus groups and epistemic communities.

It is also crucial to integrate additional scientific communities and institutes in decision-making processes. These include universities, technoparks, research and innovation industry, etc.

Our ultimate goal is to re-define science diplomacy in an open, rational, and democratic society, based on good governance.

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