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Diplomats of tomorrow

In the first of two articles on science and diplomacy, Antoaneta Roussi looks at EU efforts to build better relationships through research.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a scientist who doesn’t agree that we live in a time of momentous global problems. Climate change, migration and nuclear threats—each on their own would warrant the mobilisation of scientists around the world to find solutions.

Yet, Tools for an EU Science Diplomacy, a report by the Institute for European Studies (IES), found little evidence that the EU was effectively supporting science diplomacy. Most member states have no strategy in place. “In other words,” the report said, “science diplomacy is not well developed within most of the EU”.

Science diplomacy means using international collaboration to improve political relations between countries. Luk Van Langenhove, author of the IES report, says there are currently three calls on this topic under Horizon 2020, and that his consortium was awarded a grant for one of them.

“I see two really big potential priorities for EU science diplomacy,” he says. “One is using it as an instrument for keeping open relations with problem countries. The other is to align ourselves and support developing nations with global sustainability goals.”

Using science as a diplomatic tool is not new. After the second world war, it helped to rebuild diplomatic relations in Europe. And during the Cold war, when sympathising with the enemy could put you in jail, Soviet and western scientists kept on collaborating, for example at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, at the Habsburg summer palace in Vienna.

“It’s the place where every Nobel prizewinner and their dog went to spend their summer,” says Jason Blackstock, director of the department of science, technology, engineering and public policy at University College London. “And that’s the place that really created relationships that spread into, for example, the foundations of European air pollution agreements. It was these scientists that went back and talked with Reagan and Gorbachev on nuclear weapons deals.”

Horizon 2020 is heralded as an instrument for forging dialogue between countries, as researchers from different nations must collaborate on proposals. But Blackstock says that, while it is a good way to foster exchange, projects with physical locations fare much better in improving relations.

“Iter and Cern are good examples,” he says. “And the International Space Station—you stick a Russian and an American together who can’t go anywhere for six months, and they will get close.”

Although Carlos Moedas, the EU’s research commissioner, has made “open to the world” a priority, some Horizon 2020 policies have had an opposite effect. The European Commission tightened restrictions on collaboration with some third nations, such as Russia, because it stopped automatically funding “mid-income” countries.

Consequently, international participation in Horizon 2020 dropped from 5 per cent in Framework 7 to 2.4 per cent today. There are talks for Framework 9 to have dedicated funding for international collaboration.

It is not only science that has an impact on policy: geopolitics can also influence researchers’ lives. That is what Irina Dezhina, head of science and industrial policy at the Skolkova Institute of Science in Russia, set out to research in 2014, when the EU placed economic sanctions on Russia over Crimea. She found that scientists could be affected by seemingly non-connected national legislation, which had an impact on disciplines working closely with industry, such as oil and gas.

“A general EU guideline to keep research and technology out of the scope of sanctions would certainly be a good thing,” says Van Langenhove. “But let’s not forget that the EU used science cooperation as a sanction when it barred Switzerland from full membership of Horizon 2020 and Erasmus in 2014,” because the country went against the EU policy of open borders.

The institute also recommended programmes in which scientists shadow diplomats, such as the Ambassadors for Science initiative by the Spanish embassy in the UK.

Carmen Domene, a reader in computational chemistry at King’s College London who participated in the programme, says she found many similarities between the two communities. Diplomats aim to strengthen relationships between states, “which is inherent in the activities of the scientific community”, she says.

The Commission says it plans to build on existing programmes such as the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership in sub-Saharan Africa. “Look around at any policy issue today,” says Blackstock. “I challenge you to find one where science and technology are not rewriting the way that it works.”

The second part of this series will be published on 22 June.

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This article also appeared in Research Europe