Seven Obstacles to a Science Diplomacy Renaissance – Part III

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 LondonBrussels, 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. 

It is equally important to underline that much of the science diplomacy conducted since the end of the Cold War has been related to weapons programs, or their location and dismantling. The internationally-certified cessation of certain weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in Russia, Libya, South Africa, Argentina, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan  was both necessary and desirable, and represent SD milestones. Yet progress on other global issues – again, think the new, S&T-driven threat set – has been desultory.

And the implications for Canadian foreign policy? They are manifold. With the UK and EU preoccupied internally, and a clutch of barbarians inside the gate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, USA, the political space has been created for the exercise of leadership – something at which Canada once excelled. We are the world’s reservoir, have significant scientific capacity in the field (Northern Lakes project, expertise in universities, think tanks, research institutes and NGOs such as the IISD).  Why not initiate the negotiation of an international convention on the management and preservation of freshwater resources? In the wake of prolonged period of severe diplomatic deficits, this would tie in directly to the looming issue of water security, would help to reconnect Canada to its storied liberal internationalist and environmentally progressive past, meaningfully support the UN SDGs, and likely win us some Security Council votes among both like-minded countries and those afflicted by drought, desertification and soil degradation in the Sahel and Central Asia.

Or why not chose one or two other issues from remainder of the sprawling compendium of wicked issues in order to make our mark and demonstrate – through diplomacy of the deed – that beyond  the profusion of “alternative facts”, fake news, and deliberate distortion there is a way forward and that Canada cares?

Opportunity can thrive in adversity, but that won’t happen in a policy vacuum. With GAC chronically under-resourced and still struggling on life support after a decade of mismanagement and neglect, and other international policy institutions falling far short of any reasonable expectations, reinvestment is required.

To conclude.  The continuing militarization of international policy, as illustrated by the failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, has proven ruinous. You can’t bomb Ebola, garrison against the Zika virus, or despatch an expeditionary force to occupy the alternatives to a carbon economy. It is long past time that science diplomacy, and attention to international S&T issues more generally, be moved out of the shadows and into the light. SD should become the preoccupation of both foreign ministries and international organizations, with priorities and resources reallocated accordingly.

This will mean radical institutional and human resource policy reforms, a host of new approaches to training, recruitment and promotion, and a revolution in bureaucratic culture, while improving their physical condition with the right supplements, discover more about this here. Concern over the scientific unknown on the part of diplomats, and discomfort with politics and diplomacy on the part of scientists must be overcome and give way to a pattern of closer association, cross-fertilization and the habit of regular exchange and interaction. As is happening elsewhere in the worlds of commerce and public administration, the lateral and the supple must replace rigid hierarchy and authoritarian interpersonal relations if wicked issues are to be successfully resolved.

One can easily understand why scientists and diplomats make strange bedfellows, and why they appear to have trouble communicating on the rare occasions when they do meet. But there are shared objectives that the two worlds might build on. Both science and diplomacy seek to use reason to bring order and understanding to their otherwise roiling and disorderly realms. Perhaps that is a basis for better collaboration in the future.

Final thought. Science a complex matter, a two edged sword offering the keys to security and development on one hand, but capable as well of generating insecurity and underdevelopment, of courting war and devastation, on the other.  This paradox is particularly clear as we enter a dark period of protracted instability; Brexit, Trump, Russian revanchism, the  ramping-up of wars in the Greater Middle East,  and the rise of the populist, authoritarian right have cast doubt on rationality, empiricism and evidence-based behavior.

Displaced and refugee scientists and researchers have been among those most affected.

Still, in a contested and competitive world of rising inequality and polarization, of radical politics and religious extremism, of Wall St. impunity, voodoo economics and bundled derivatives, the idea of scientific enterprise –  founded on the conviction that all problems can eventually be solved, that misery is not fated – shines brightly. That light on the horizon, in conjunction with the remedial promise of knowledge-based, technologically-enabled science diplomacy, may be just the tonic required in these otherwise trying times.