A Role for Science Diplomacy? Soft Power and Global Challenges – Part II

Part I of this series examined the relationships – or lack thereof – between diplomacy, science and international policy, and noted the serious image problems which plague all three enterprises. These difficulties have hobbled the practice of science diplomacy, and are compounded by a host of substantial issues, which will be addressed presently. First, however, it may be useful to unpack the key terms.

Not unlike “intelligence” or  “policy”, “science” and “technology” are words frequently invoked in both conversation and writing. More often than not, however, the users have little more than an intuitive sense of what these terms actually mean.

Science and Development

An evidence-based and collegial form of  knowledge acquisition, science is founded upon empirical methods and the repeated verification of results. Neither inherently political nor ideological, it is a type of universal language, a vector of transnational communications which poses fundamental questions about the nature of things. Science is long term in orientation, bottom-up in origin, and collaborative by design. The findings of most scientific enquiry become part of the public realm. Most importantly, science and the reaearch which underpins it proceed from the assumption that all events are caused, and that all causes can – eventually – be determined.  That means that misery is not fated and that adversity can be rolled back through the creation of new knowledge – to prevent and cure disease, discover alternative energy sources, invent new materials, and so forth. At its best, science enlarges understanding and encourages development.

Science also plays an important role in the formation and conditioning of intellectual culture and national values. In its scope and methodology, science helps to inform current analysis and educate enquiring minds. The scientific ethos of objective experimentation through trial and error has broad appeal: it promotes merit (through peer review); openness (through publication); civic values and citizen empowerment (through the encouragement of respect for diverse perspectives). In short, science advances learning in a transparent, participatory and inclusive manner. It represents a cornerstone of humanity’s progress.

Technology and National Interests

Technology, on the other hand, is applied knowledge. Its relationship to science is not, as is widely believed, always linear, and it is deeply implicated in the defining historical process of our times, globalization. Because technology touches more directly and immediately upon government and private sector interests, its development is often top-down, short term, competitive and demand-driven. As the possession and use of technology can confer advantage, the latest technological innovations are often licensed, sold, used as bargaining chips, or otherwise protected as private goods.  As a tool in the hands of man, technology is related more closely than science to the possession and use of power, which is the capacity to achieve specified outcomes. Technology, therefore, tends to be regarded and used as an instrument of international policy.

It follows that science and technology per se should occupy a large, and very central place in diplomacy and international policy. The reality, however, is quite the opposite. Foreign ministries, development agencies, and indeed most multilateral organizations are without the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural pre-disposition or R&D network access and cross-cutting linkages required to engage with S&T, or to assess and manage S&T issues effectively.

Power, Profits, and International Policy

Even if diplomats and their institutions were better equipped, the perspectives and interests of those in the public sector, business, the NGO community and universities are not always complimentary. Often they are contradictory or competitive.

Consider, for instance:

  • The preponderance of private sector control over essential S&T intellectual property (patents and copyrights limit spread of innovation and the transfer of technology)
  • The influence of what President  Eisenhower described as the Military Industrial Complex over funding priorities and research agendas  (many governments are still spending more on defence  research than on health research)
  • The militarization of international policy more generally (development and diplomacy have been sidelined by the use of armed force as the international policy instrument of choice)

These observations provide some idea of the scope and dimensions of the challenge. Yet the connections and trade-offs between defence spending and underdevelopment, S&T and international policy, or the public good and private interests are not on the radar screen of most analysts or governments.

If this is to change, and in order to examine the remedial possibilities, opinion leaders, decision-makers and senior officials must be critically aware of the dynamic inter-relationships among and between principal actors and the key questions and issues at play.

Unfortunately, most are not. In fact, these matters are seldom on the political map. The implications for both Canada and the world are significant, and these will be the subject of the next post.