Science, Technology and International Policy – Part I

Underdevelopment and insecurity, much like globalization itself, are intimately connected to science and technology (S&T). A capacity to absorb and use  S&T can confer significant competitive advantage upon individuals, groups, cities, countries and regions , while the absence of that capacity can be costly. Together, science and technology present both a very complex challenge to, and a critical opportunity for all members of the international community.

In the best of all possible worlds, S&T can be prime movers in propelling the planet forward towards a more peaceful, prosperous future.

In a worse case scenario, they may be our undoing.

At present,  S&T quite clearly is not delivering on its potential. Indeed, inadequate science and inappropriate technology seem much more closely associated  with all kinds of global problems – pandemic disease, climate change, genomics, resource shortages, weapons of mass destruction, environmental collapse – than with their solution. And this catalogue, it must be emphasized, represents a fair summary of the most pressing threats facing political leaders everywhere.

In a world of the polio vaccine and digital imaging, stem cell research and the i-pod, why do we find such radical underperformance in the face of such inspiring possibilities?

When I began construction of the research base which underpins Guerrilla Diplomacy, I was surprised to learn that there was very litttle in the mainstream literature which explores the links between S&T, on one hand, and international policy and relations, on the other. Today, I have a clearer understanding of of that lacuna. With few exceptions, and especially at the level of macro policy and grand strategy, there simply are no significant connections. That state of dis-integration, moreover, has become a key issue  facing both scholars and diplomatic practitioners, whether they know it, or (as is more likely) not.

In the day-to-day business of diplomacy and foreign ministries, S&T exists in a kind of floating world. It is there, but ensconced in a shiny bubble which few really understand or can easily penetrate.

These observations, and several closely related conceptual and theoretical issues, might be illustrated as follows. Imagine a town hall style meeting between employees and senior managers in the headquarters building of a foreign ministry most anywhere in the world. The purpose of the gathering is to identify and discuss the key issues likely to face policy makers and decision-takers over the medium to long term. A new recruit, for instance one of the candidates who has recently entered the State Department under the Jefferson Fellows Program, goes to a microphone and asks the panel of assembled Undersecretaries these three  questions:

  • What is the relationship among and between science and technology, research and development, and innovation, and how does this impact on the formulation of international policy and the management of international relations?
  • How has the nature and role of S&T changed in the transition from the Cold War to the globalization age?
  • Do transnational S&T issues differ in kind from more traditional challenges faced by analysts and policymakers?

While I am not in a position to guarantee that such a trio of questions would necessarily generate mainly an assortment of nervous glances, punctuted only by an awkward silence on the podium,  my experience would lead me to to predict exactly that sort of outcome.

Just why this might eventuate, and how those questions might have been broached, will be taken up in subsequent posts.

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