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At a time when diplomatic ties seem to be fraying everywhere -- between China and the U.S., mainland Europe and Britain, North Korea and pretty much everyone -- can academics help patch things up?

This is the question posed by the concept of “science diplomacy,” now often called “knowledge diplomacy” so that the humanities and social sciences are not left out.

Different definitions of science diplomacy abound. But the core idea is that working together on research projects can build trust and networks between countries, improving their overall relations.

“Working together on scientific projects would be a very sincere vote of trust in the relationship,” explained Carolin Kaltofen, a research associate at University College London and an expert on the idea. Opening up your research labs to other states -- and potentially giving away your competitive advantage -- is a modern trust-building exercise perhaps akin to offering a king’s daughter in marriage to cement a medieval alliance, she said.

For example, after Muammar el-Qaddafi agreed to give up Libya’s program to develop weapons of mass destruction in 2003, the first bilateral treaty that the country agreed to with the U.S. was scientific.

The concept of science diplomacy shot to prominence about 10 years ago, with a series of books, reports and centers launched to explore its potential -- although in reality it has been practiced for much longer, with U.S.-Soviet space mission cooperation, for example, sometimes credited as helping to take some of the heat out of the Cold War. High-profile endorsements followed from Hillary Clinton, who was then U.S. secretary of state, and British prime minister Gordon Brown.

Since then, science diplomacy has “accelerated” in importance in foreign ministries, according to Paul Berkman, director of the Science Diplomacy Center at Tufts University, who edited the first book on the concept in 2009. “It feels like a renaissance,” he enthused.

He makes grand claims for its potential: “I think it is possible for science diplomacy to restore the dialogue in the Middle East, or the South China Sea.” With Russian colleagues, Berkman has since 2010 helped broker talks between NATO and Russia about security in the Arctic. Academics can act as neutral facilitators, he argued, and universities need to take on this role more fully.

But the concept of science diplomacy is currently being radically rethought.

Ten years ago, science diplomacy was often conceived as a form of “soft power”: a way of getting your way as a country through positive influence and attraction -- perhaps by offering scholarships to junior researchers from other countries so they build up a relationship with your own universities -- rather than the traditional “hard power” of, say, military might. Science diplomacy “is one of our most effective ways of influencing and assisting other nations,” Clinton said in 2009.

Crudely put, academics and universities could be deployed in lieu of tanks, fighter jets or economic sanctions. A preferable form of power for sure -- and often mingled with more altruistic motives -- but a form of power nonetheless.

Yet last month at its annual Going Global conference in Berlin, the British Council released a report written by Jane Knight, an expert in international higher education at the University of Toronto, which argued for a very different approach.

Knowledge diplomacy should emphatically not be about “self-serving” or “me first” soft power, she told delegates. Instead, universities should try to build collaborative, genuinely “win-win” relationships, she argued. Knowledge diplomacy is becoming “less and less to do with soft power,” concurred Jo Beall, the British Council’s director for education and society, during a plenary discussion at Going Global.

Knight’s report, "Knowledge Diplomacy in Action," praises initiatives such as the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, which since 2006 has poured more than 100 million Australian dollars ($70 million) into research projects in areas of importance to both countries, including agriculture, food and water security, and marine sciences.

The point is that it is supposed to be a partnership of equals: both governments fund the research, and priorities are decided by four different agencies, two in each country. National interest is still at play in knowledge diplomacy -- “it would be naïve to deny this,” the report says -- but collaborations should be driven by “cooperation, collaboration, negotiation and compromise” instead of “self-interest, increased influence and relative dominance.”

But in reality, how free are scholars and universities to rise above the power politics of the nation-states that still host and -- on the whole -- fund them?

It’s a question made particularly acute by the U.S.’s recent crackdown on perceived Chinese exploitation of publicly funded research and intellectual property theft. Last month, Emory University fired two Chinese American scientists for not fully disclosing their funding sources and links with Chinese research institutions, part of a broader series of investigations initiated by the National Institutes of Health.

Nina Fedoroff, a molecular plant biologist who served as science and technology adviser to both Clinton and her predecessor as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is credited with coining the term “science diplomacy.”

But even she was scathing about the impact that collaborating with China has had on U.S. research and technology prowess. “The whole generation of Chinese educated at U.S. universities is the first line of technology theft,” she said, echoing a growing consensus forming in Washington. Graduating from U.S. universities into U.S. companies, Chinese students have then taken technology back to China, she alleged.

In her field of research, she said, Chinese researchers are now doing groundbreaking work. This is “good for science, but a problem for our country,” Fedoroff argued, because it meant that U.S. scientific pre-eminence “may not continue,” just as it waned for countries such as Germany.

Initiating science diplomacy is still a “no-brainer” -- “should we never be kind, because we might be exploited?” she asked rhetorically -- but it has its risks. “When you reach out to help someone, that person can bite your hand … that’s basically what China has done,” she said.

And although science diplomacy has caught on as a concept, it is still held back by “science-phobic” attitudes in foreign ministries, she said. “It’s very difficult to get diplomats to get over their mistrust of science,” Fedoroff recalled, which is often “just a scary magic” to them.

Whether universities have to keep one eye on their governments’ foreign policy depends on the country, pointed out Simon Marginson, director of Britain's Center for Global Higher Education. “Universities in the European/American tradition have much freedom to operate outside national interest, and individual academics and research groups more so as they operate under the radar at any time,” he said.

U.S. universities have more “formal freedoms” from the state than their European counterparts, “although oddly, in practice, they are more likely to conform to national security or foreign policy perspectives,” he observed. “Win-win knowledge diplomacy is very possible,” argued Marginson, so long as it was not “trumped” by the “new Cold War” between China and the U.S.

UCL’s Kaltofen said that in practice, though, it is very difficult to do science diplomacy without power dynamics encroaching. This “doesn’t mean to dismiss the concept itself,” she said, but it means that it is far from a “silver bullet” as sometimes presented.

Rich countries can pick and choose whom they partner with, while poorer ones cannot, she pointed out, which risks “increasing uneven power relationships.” Some research partnerships between the U.S. and countries in central and north Africa have ended up overburdening the poorer countries’ limited scientific infrastructure, she said.

A better match for science diplomacy might be post-Brexit Britain and the European Union, Kaltofen suggested, as their research capabilities are fairly equal, and links already established. “It would be a good channel to maintain relations,” she said.

To even get off the ground, science diplomacy is reliant on some form of higher-level political agreement in the first place; North Korean and U.S. universities cannot simply strike up a research partnership without their governments’ say-so, she pointed out.

And politics can easily scupper nascent links -- Trump’s 2017 travel ban aimed at six majority-Muslim countries “made it very clear how quickly these research ties can end.” She cautioned, “That shows the limits of science diplomacy.”

Still, sometimes knowledge diplomacy can help build bridges to even the most isolated states. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), for example, offers stipends for students and researchers coming from North Korea to Germany, and vice versa, despite ongoing E.U. sanctions against the country in response to its nuclear weapons program.

DAAD was asked to visit North Korea “just to have an idea where we can start operations,” explained its general secretary, Dorothea Rüland, at Going Global. “Sometimes it’s easier for people coming from research and higher education to keep contacts going than someone from the foreign office in Germany,” she said.

Sometimes science diplomacy is directed from above: the German foreign ministry suggested German universities create a center for peace and conflict studies in Colombia to assist the peace process there. “We had to call German universities and see if universities were interested,” Rüland told delegates.

But, to be “very frank,” she added, “projects are much easier if they are bottom-up.”

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