The power of science diplomacy

  • 2024-07-04
  • Christina Pfänder
  • Comment
SDG Ziel 16: Frieden, Gerechtigkeit und starke Institutionen
SDG Ziel 17: Partnerschaften zur Erreichung der Ziele
Smiling male scientist waving while doing video call through laptop at desk in laboratory
© Getty Images/izusek

Science diplomacy becomes increasingly important in times of mounting tension around the world and multiple global crises. Two of our community members speak about their experiences.

Regime rivalries, global competition and wars: not only since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does the question arise as to how dialogue and trusting international cooperation in academia and science can be propagated in a multipolar world – and which instruments are suitable for projecting national values and interests, and for improving relations with other nations.

The three dimensions of science diplomacy

Science diplomacy can open doors to other nations and according to the it includes three dimensions. While ‘science in diplomacy’ targets the furtherance of foreign-policy strategies by means of scientific advice, in the case of ‘diplomacy for science’ it is foreign policy that encourages international scientific collaborations. The third form, ‘science for diplomacy’, relies on scientific collaborations to intensify bilateral or multilateral relations.

Example from practice: the Hindu Kush Himalayas region

Germany alumna Dr Dhanasree Jayaram, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) in India, knows the various dimensions from her everyday academic life. ‘Academia and research can never wholly divorce themselves from political conditions and international conflicts’, she says. This becomes clear based on the example of the Hindu Kush Himalayas region: there are conflicts regarding territorial borders and resources that exist between India, Pakistan and China and that have a negative impact on transnational cooperation. ‘Yet particularly in light of climate change – which is resulting in melting glaciers, diminishing species and increasing periods of drought – far-reaching academic exchange would be an absolute necessity for this region’, she explains. ‘The Hindu Kush Himalayas is the source of ten large rivers that supply water to eight countries on our Asiatic continent.’

Global tasks require scientific cooperation

Other global challenges too, such as or , necessitate effective mutual interaction and therefore different forms of science diplomacy. ‘I see huge potential in doing so’, says Jayaram. ‘Academic exchange, international formats and institutional partnerships can even build bridges to challenging partners.’ Geopolitical tensions can also be lessened by means of science diplomacy, albeit their impact on international political processes could in part be played down and marginalised. ‘Yet science diplomacy also counteracts human rights violations’, she explains. ‘Exchange organisations like the or the enable those academics and researchers who are denied the right to education in their home countries to continue their activities in another country. That generates significant synergies.’

The challenges of science cooperation that is asymmetric

Asymmetry in the science system does however pose a difficulty; for example between the Global South and North, between the elite and marginalised or indigenous groups. It is nevertheless possible to use equal cooperation to anchor within the institutions, organisations and networks: ‘Interchange among researchers can give rise to different perspectives that expand our inherent experiences and standpoints’, says Jayaram. ‘My own stays in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany enabled me to grow as a researcher.’

Fulbright: science diplomacy in action

Using scientific dialogue to discover different points of view and experiences: this a facet also relied on by Daniel H. Wager, head of Network Development at Fulbright Germany. ‘Our organisation stemmed from an intergovernmental agreement between the USA and Germany in 1952 and since then has provided scholarship programmes to promote transatlantic academic exchange’, he explains. ‘With respect to formats of science diplomacy, my experience here indicates that it’s always the perspective that is decisive.’ Germany for instance sees itself as part of Europe, whereas the USA would sooner engage in bilateral than multilateral relations. ‘It also makes a difference whether I’m acting in this area as a state protagonist, research institution, or as an individual.’

Alumni as ambassadors of academic exchange

The organisation in particular advances the Fulbright mission of reciprocal and international understanding at an individual level: ‘Worldwide we have some 400,000 alumnae and alumni who see themselves as citizen diplomats, in other words as autonomous science and research diplomats’, says Wagner. ‘In doing so, they each introduce their own perspective and contribute to positive transformation of their communities and society.’ Fulbright also supports its former graduates with different services, events and networking activities even after the scholarship has ended. This gives them the opportunity to process and openly discuss even difficult, but socially relevant topics. In the context of a Fulbright event at the Barenboim–Said Akademie in May 2024, for example, one alumnus presented his latest book () that deals with the murders perpetrated by the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terror cell in Germany.

‘We furthermore collaborate with other Fulbright Commissions and communities in almost 50 countries’, Wagner explains. This includes him having worked with Israeli colleagues to initiate a project that deals with the topic of knowledge transfer between various countries and regions; an event considering the topic of political humour in terms of the US American presidential election campaign was organised in collaboration with the Polish Commission. ‘That involved the German-American and German-Polish communities joining in a discourse at the Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder).’ It ultimately became clear: science diplomacy is an essential component of international relations. ‘Transnational academic and scientific partnership can result in knowledge becoming transparent and accessible to everyone’, says Daniel H. Wagner. ‘This is among other things effective in countering disinformation campaigns conducted by non-democratic states – an important process that in turn makes a positive impact on our own societies.’

* mandatory field