Make no mistake.
Data is of little use in the absence of interpretation, and there exists a desperate need for guides, brokers and translators who can bridge the two solitudes. Overcoming these challenges will not be easy, not least with the ascension of a regressive Trump administration in the USA. Yet, absent radically improved performance, there is a growing likelihood that humanity will arrive, at some indeterminate, but not too distant point in the future, at a global tipping point beyond which recovery may be impossible.
Finding ways to manage the “Malignificent Seven” – a sleeper issue of enormous consequence – should be one of the central political and public policy objectives of our times. But instead, the lion’s share of resources still flow to the military; the US Government, for example, spends more on defence R&D than all other types of research combined. In the mainstream, consideration of SD is next to invisible, displaced by infotainment spectacles, fake news, “alternative facts” and more proximate concerns such as employment, housing, education and health care.
Still, before readers get too depressed… the situation is not entirely bleak. Science diplomacy has produced a rich legacy of arms control and environmental agreements, including recent pacts to establish an Antarctic marine reserve and to control HFCs, and significant disarmament initiatives affecting Iran (nuclear non-proliferation) and Syria (chemical weapons).
The general intensity of SD-related activity has increased significantly in recent months, with meetings in London, Brussels, Vienna, Berlin and Ottawa. All seventeen of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals contain major S&T components. Courses are cropping up at US institutions, including Tufts, The Rockefeller University and NYU.
Some specialized agencies (UN, EU) and governments (US, UK, Switzerland, Spain, Japan, Korea, and NZ) have demonstrated a number of best practices in SD. New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor, Peter Gluckman, has worked tirelessly to establish an International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA), while NGOs such as TWAS have significantly deepened their engagement. Vaughan Turekian, the Science and Technology Advisor at the US State Department and former head of the AAAS’ Science and Diplomacy program, has launched a raft of innovative initiatives. The SESAME Synchrotron project in Jordan is co-managed by a group of countries not known for their habits of cooperation – Palestine, Israel, Turkey and Cyprus, among others.
That said, these examples represent the exceptions rather than the rule; even taken together they are not nearly enough to change the big picture. Indeed, there have lately been some especially unwelcome setbacks (e.g. Russia ) and much remains to be done.