Scientific diplomacy

Written by Giulia Lombardo


Is it possible to use science as a tool of diplomacy? The new interconnected world manifests global problems which demand a collective effort. They can be solved through an international cooperation between the international community and the cientific one. In fact, in recent years, the contribution of the scientific community has become increasingly essential. The ability of academics and researchers in the sector of science at the service of the national and international interests represents a resource for the benefit of the whole community and the future of the earth.

The use of science in the sphere of diplomacy Science diplomacy includes all the activities that use science as a tool to promote knowledge, to carry out humanitarian activities and to improve relations between states.

The use of science in the field of diplomacy – from a conceptual point of view – is declined in:
– Science in Diplomacy: science that provides advice to inform and support foreign policy objectives.
– Diplomacy for Science: diplomacy that facilitates international scientific cooperation.
– Science for Diplomacy: scientific cooperation that improves international relations.

This semantic distinction has often been defined as ‘academic’ and not ‘practical’ since there are some issues that are difficult to include into this tripartition. Nevertheless, it is functional to define whether an international agency or a ministry work in the field of science or diplomacy; indeed, even if the domains intersect, they are different.

Another division gaze at the expectations and results that an agency, an institution or a researcher intends to achieve. Science at the service of diplomacy can include – therefore – actions aimed at: 

– reaching national needs
– addressing cross-border problems
– solving global issues2 To achieve these results, scientific diplomacy aims at negotiation and cooperation in multilateral arenas in order to open channels of communication between states and between experts and researchers. The debate concerns all the issues that directly regard science.

Recently the most debated topic concern environmental protection. With the beginning of the new millennium, in fact, new challenges have arisen such as nonproliferation, disarmament, peaceful uses of nuclear energy and climate change. The latter demonstrated how fundamental is not only the knowledge and competence of individuals, but also the cooperation and negotiation that take place in organizations and agencies. Institutions play a key role when political relations are not particularly solid and when there are differences between countries – in particular on levels of development – which could affect the process of resolving the problem. 

Climate change

The international regime of climate change is a complex context as the phenomenon itself has imprecise features. Climate change, due to the increase in the earth’s temperature, gives rise to many natural phenomena such as drought, winds, and precipitation, which can also take the form of disasters. Because of this uncertainty, has been created an intergovernmental group of experts from different countries for the purpose of investigating the phenomenon: the International Panel of Climate Change. The IPCC was instituted by the United Nations, precisely by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. It represents an excellent realization of the union between science and diplomacy since the scientific capabilities of the specialists were gathered within organizations under the auspices of the United Nations.

Climate change was defined by the UN General Assembly as common concern of mankind. Based on this, UN created an intergovernmental negotiating committee that worked to create the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The objectives of the Convention are defined on the basis of scientific and socio-economic analysis. In fact, only the countries with greatest capacity must achieve measurable obligations. This modus operandi reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities according to which developing countries have no obligation to reduce and, at the same time, they benefit from the obligation of the most developed countries. In fact, the first two flexibility mechanisms – with which the Annex I countries would achieve the target of reduction between 5% and 8 % – involved the implementation of emission reduction projects in another country. The country that conceived the project would have added the reductions made in the host state to those made on its territory and the state covered by the project would have received transfers of technology and foreign investments.

The third mechanism, the emission trading system, was limited to the most developed countries. Each state determines how much to emit, distributes the emission quotas among the sectors. At the end of each reference period, each entity participating in the market calculates how much it has emitted, and it returns a value of emission quotas equal to the amount of CO2 emitted. If less has been emitted, the remaining part of the units can be sold on the market to those who emitted the most.

This system was adopted in the framework of the European Union. Even this regional organization has dealt with the problem of climate change. Environmental protection is part of the objectives of the European Union and consequently of its external action. On 14 January 2020 was approved the European Green Deal, an investment plan to support the fight against climate change.

Diplomats of science

As the above-mentioned issue demonstrate, scientific diplomacy is the result of the union of the work of institutions and representatives of the diplomatic-political world and those of the technical-scientific world. The figure of the scientific attaché plays a fundamental role in strengthening scientific and technological cooperation between countries. They are deployed in the diplomatic offices, and they have the task of supporting collaboration between universities, institutions and companies operating in the fields of advanced technology. The international presence of competent experts in the field of research is fundamental. Researchers must be connected and therefore, spaces for dialogue and comparison must be created. Moreover, according to the Royal Society, an independent scientific academy of the United Kingdom, “younger scientists need to have opportunities and career incentives to engage with policy processes from the earliest stage of their careers”.

In addition to skills in the scientific field, it is necessary that they have also developed political skills. Communication in the diplomatic area is very important. Often the access to multilateral scientific institutions takes place through a selection according to previous studies and experiences, but then, in these multinational contexts it is possible to develop skills in dialogue and cooperation.

The evolution of scientific diplomacy in recent years

Scientific diplomacy is an important component of modern diplomacy, even more in the last hree years, due to the Covid-19 pandemic emergency. The creation of vaccines, in fact, took place at the national level but also – as well as the study of SARS-CoV-2 – thanks to scientific and technological cooperation. Somehow, this joint work in the scientific field caused by a global issue, could be the first step in “reducing the gap between two great powers with conflicting worldviews” such as United States and China. Even during the Cold War, in fact, tense relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had been loosen on the side of science and research, thanks to the creation of institutions and the participation in common initiatives. It led to the creation of binding legal instruments that showed a shared vision between the two powers even on very sensitive issues.

An example is the Convention on Early Notification in the Event of a Nuclear Accident, signed in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. On the other hand, however, the negative impact caused by Covid 19 has exacerbated the distances already existing between the two superpowers. In any case, beyond the bilateral relations between the United States and China, surely the pandemic emergency – with its consequences on the environment, health, and economy – has increased tensions.

At the same time, the state of emergency has shown how scientific diplomacy is fundamental to combat challenges with a global scope. The diplomatic agreement between countries on many issues related to the pandemic has started from the meeting between institutions and experts in the field of science and technology.

The meeting place par excellence, even in this pandemic emergency, is represented by the United Nations, the international organization responsible for maintaining international security and peace. The organization has mobilized to offer humanitarian, social and economic assistance and to guide the global health response. The September 2020 report asserts: “the pandemic is more than a health crisis, it is a human crisis that has highlighted serious and systemic inequalities”. Covid has bent the global economy and has hit individuals without any kind of distinction. The fight against inequality has always accompanied the work of the United Nations, which also reiterates the importance of continuing to fight for a more sustainable world. Climate change, in fact, continues to progress and, with Covid-19 emergency, it represents a very serious threat to global integrity and health.

Sustainable development and the UN 2030 Agenda Sustainable development is one of the objectives that the scientific community always places on the table of negotiation and international cooperation. It is one of the six principles governing the International Environmental Law. It is a principle elaborated in the Stockholm Declaration – result of the homonymous Conference of 1972 – then perfected in the work that led to the Rio de Janeiro Conference. During this work, it was established the Brutland Commission, whose report stated: “economic development can be said to be sustainable when it meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy theirs”.

Environmental protection, therefore, must be an integral part of the development process of states which must seek a balance between their interests and environmental protection. The principle has a broad regulatory scope. It is declined in: sustainable use of natural resources, intergenerational equity and intragenerational equity. The sustainable use of natural resources refers to an admissible (and not maximum) exploitation of resources. This means not compromising the availability of resources and not depleting existing stocks. In conventional practice we note Article 119 of the Montego Bay Convention, which stipulates that each State must set a fishing quota that allows the continuation of the species Intergenerational equity ensures that both the needs of present generations and those of future generations are satisfied. In case-law, we find a condemnation by the German Supreme Court because of the violation of this principle. The case complained of the illegitimacy of the German plan on the reduction of greenhouse gases since it provided that most of the reduction would have to take place after 2030 and only a small part in this decade. The Court declared the plan illegitimate because the burden rested on future generations and, at the same time, it compromised the enjoyment of the rights of present generations.

Intragenerational equity guarantees, as dictated by principle 7 of the Rio de Janeiro Declaration of 1992, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. As the conditions of environmental degradation derive from the behaviors and development patterns of some states, it is necessary to take into account the different levels of economic and technological development and to differentiate the obligations.

This broad principle of Sustainable Development led the United Nations to define the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda. The Agenda for Sustainable Development is an action programme –divided into 169 targets – signed in September 2015 by the governments of the 193 UN member countries. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – follow up on the results of the Millennium Development Goals that preceded them – establish common aims on various issues.

The issues do not only concern environmental protection as they are also related to social, political, and economic aspects. The role of science diplomacy is crucial to achieving these objectives. Sustainable development is a global goal that requires the intervention of all governments on cross issues. The analysis of the achievement of these objectives also requires the use of formal references, the collection and evaluation of data. The UN agencies themselves are not autonomous but depend on the national governments of the states that compose them. For this reason, it is necessary that the officials of the scientific ministries and diplomatic ministries coordinate themselves.

To support the implementation of SGD’s, it was created the ten-member advisory group of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM). It focuses on the implementation of projects that guarantee a fair distribution of technologies, which are not available to all the UN member states that have undersigned the objectives of the 2030 Agenda. It represents an important coordination center that recognizes the key role of science and technology in achieving not only environmental but also socio-economic objectives. The goals are:

1. Ending poverty in all its forms
2. Zero hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
3. Ensuring health and well-being for everyone at all ages
4. Deliver quality, inclusive and equal education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
5. Achieving gender equality and improving women’s living conditions
6. Ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and hygienic conditions for all
7. Ensuring access to clean, cheap and sustainable energy for all
8. Promote lasting, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
9. Building resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable and inclusive industrialization and fostering innovation
10. Reducing inequalities between countries
11. Making cities and communities safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable
12. Ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns
13. Taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impact
14. Safeguarding the oceans, seas and marine resources for their sustainable development
15. Protect, restore and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable forest management, combat desertification, stop and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, ensure access to justice for all, create effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

17. Reinforce the significance of implementation and revitalize global collaborations for sustainable development.

All countries are called to contribute by defining the strategy that will allow to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, it was created an annual monitoring process that take place during the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) and four-year meeting with the General Assembly.


Scientific diplomacy is a fundamental tool to combat international challenges and global problems. Science has always represented a channel of communication that overcame ideological and cultural barriers. It is a field capable of canceling geographical boundaries and differences in the dissemination of knowledge and comparison. For this reason, the use of the science in the area of diplomacy is a resource capable of putting in contact even the most distant states. At a time when there is a revival of the centrality of the state, the cross-border character of the issues highlights how crucial it is to take the first steps towards a common solution, together. Experts in the field of technology and science are an invaluable resource; it is essential to open the doors of the diplomatic world to these researchers, providing them with the righttools to move in a context very different from their field of expertise. Although diplomacy and science are two different worlds, they can coexist and create a combination of forces committed to improving the social, economic, physical and environmental condition of the earth.


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