Scientific diplomacy and development


Scientific diplomacy is considered an umbrella term for a form of “new democracy” that encompasses scientific, technical, academic or engineering cooperation and exchanges within the field of international affairs. This process which arose following the collapse of the USSR, is therefore also a sub-field of international relations. It describes the union and interaction of science and diplomacy and the role of professional practices and experts at their centre. Science diplomacy unites scientific cooperation and diplomatic assistance to build international partnerships, address global challenges and advance, both directly and indirectly, national interests and needs.

The Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported in January 2010 that “science diplomacy” refers to three types of activities:

  1. Science IN diplomacy in which science is used to provide advice and information on how to support foreign policy objectives and national interests – the direct involvement of science in diplomatic efforts
  2. Diplomacy FOR science in which diplomacy is used to facilitate international scientific cooperation – the use of diplomatic actions to further scientific and technologic advancement
  3. Science FOR diplomacy in which scientific cooperation is used to improve international relations – the use of science to promote diplomatic objectives

Initiatives like science diplomacy were previously often considered a “soft power”, a term coined by scholar Joseph Nye in his 1990 book – Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.

Science Diplomacy Associations and Institutions:


The AAAS is the largest multidisciplinary scientific organisation and society and top publisher of cutting-edge scientific research though its Science journals. This organisation, established in 1848, was the first organisation which promoted the development of engineering and scientific advancements at a national level. The AAAS Centre dedicated for Science Diplomacy was established in 2008 and has quickly become a vital organ to this concept. Indeed, within this centre, members effectively create reports, surveys, reviews and analyses of such diplomatic activities, promote the connection between science and diplomacy, highlight the need for engagement of scientists and experts in the policy sphere and identify over 150 science-diplomacy linkage mechanisms to facilitate the union between the two.

International research cooperation:

Science diplomacy can be interpreted as a form of transnational and networked governance involving human collaborations via bodies of the UN such as UNESCO. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was indeed one of the first largest initiatives within UNESCO which successfully established peaceful scientific cooperation and exchanges and has since become a model for effective multilateral cooperation for scientific research with aims for global peace and exchange of technology and knowledge. This organisation created in 1954 is run by 20 European member states and various other non-European countries partake within the organisation in different ways. Its main objectives of resuming scientific research in Europe following the Second World War and achieving international research cooperation based on the diplomatic neutrality and universality of science have been successfully achieved. Indeed, over 608 institutes and universities around the globe take advantage of CERN’s facilities demonstrating the sheer importance of scientific exchange of information and science diplomacy. It was at CERN that the first post WW2 contacts were made between German and Israeli scientists, showing science diplomacy’s intrinsic soft power in helping achieved dialogue and cooperation among European countries!

COVID-19 pandemic:

The lack of respect for scientific guidance and lack of experts present at leading international discussions about the outbreak of the pandemic was surely a prime factor in the spread of the virus COVID-19. The international response to the outbreak of this pandemic however demonstrated that science, technology and innovation are vitar for overcoming global crises. The government of New Zealand for instance, worked side by side with one of New Zealand’s top epidemiologists who advised them that the virus could not be controlled with the standard pandemic flu action plan, as early as March 2020. The union between scientists and politicians during the process was what made the country so effective in almost entirely eliminating the presence of the virus on its island. Its early and effective union between science and politics – national leadership, public health measures and societal cohesion (mask wearing, social distancing and testing and tracking techniques) allowed for successful prevention of the coronavirus spread.

Advice on closing down borders, triggering a system of alert to a level four as early as March 25th 2020, all contributed to the early detection and near elimination of the disease, as opposed to Britain who continuously refused to listen to scientific advice that stated that their borders should close, until the virus became out of control. The UK government has defended its COVID-19 elimination strategy stating it was “guided by the science” yet it is clear that scientific advice had not been followed as it should have, and science diplomacy would have greatly aided the pandemic situation in the UK.

The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development:

At the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) which provide a framework for peace and prosperity for all countries and their people. However, the fight to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 has since overshadowed international efforts to achieve these goals. Target 17.6 (“Enhance North-South, South-South and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation and enhance knowledge-sharing on mutually agreed terms, including through improved coordination among existing mechanisms, in particular at the United Nations level, and through a global technology facilitation mechanism”) and Target 17.8 (“Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanisms for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology” ) specifically seem to push the idea of furthering the access and use of STI’s (science, technology and innovation) to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The use of science, technology and innovation (STI) is indispensable in making progress on these goals of sustainable development. Experts in science can help identify challenges, indicators for monitoring progress and advise on actions that governments can take to make a change. Science and innovation are crucial to resolving and improving food hygiene, water purification, energy poverty, health, etc. 


Nuclear security:

Nuclear security including non-proliferation, arms reduction, countering nuclear terrorism and nuclear energy and non-proliferation would greatly benefit from science diplomacy, now more than ever. The failure of the Cold War to turn hot does not by any means mean that the threat of nuclear war has shrunk, if anything the shift from a bipolar world order to a multipolar one, the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons and the increasing varieties of nuclear threat all point to the fact that science diplomacy is much needed.


Furthering international scientific cooperation should be a priority in our day and age. The pandemic we are currently in has demonstrated the vitality and necessity to unite science and diplomacy to fight world-wide crises. Its ability to open dialogue and cooperation among European countries and its ability to serve as a communication channel when diplomatic relations are stagnant, further illustrates the growing necessity of science diplomacy.

This process seems a fantastic opportunity for governments to help solve major global challenges. To give STID activities a higher profile in diplomacy, one could recommend organising increasing multilateral and international seminars with varying experts in these fields to help solve these challenges, promote technological facilitation mechanisms and staff training and design of STI infrastructures which can provide major initiatives for promoting effective globalisations. Science diplomacy must therefore be funded and encouraged a maximum amount to help resolve some of the most pressing challenges our society faces today – nuclear proliferation and cybersecurity, natural disasters- pandemics and climate change which all require scientific knowledge and understanding, innovative technology and STID advice.