Diaspora Scientific Communities at Home and Abroad – Part I: An Untapped Resource for Diplomacy?

Blogger’s Note:  This is the first installment of notes for an address delivered 25 November 2015 at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa.


Many thanks to the conference organizers and CSPC volunteers, and warm greetings to all attendees.

I would like try and launch our discussion of the putative role and place of diaspora science communities (DSCs) in international relations by offering an overview of some key considerations and constraints.

The idea of tapping into the skills and expertise resident in diaspora science communities (DSCs) in order to advance international policy goals and more effectively address global challenges is certainly an attractive proposition. That said, much complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity lie just below the surface. The relevant literature is thin, initiatives have been few, and as a result there is little by way of an established track record which might be examined to illuminate the way forward. Moreover, even if it can be demonstrated that scientists who share a common nationality but live abroad do in fact exhibit characteristics of something which could reasonably be described as a community, it is by no means clear that would-be members of DSCs self-identify as such or could be motivated to contribute to the attainment of objectives lying largely outside of the lab.

Would, for example, Chinese or Indian-born scientists living in Canada be willing to participate as a group in any kind of a larger, and in some respects more inherently political enterprise?

Tapping into DSC’s for the purposes of science diplomacy is quite possibly more easily said than done.

In trying to frame and contextualize the issue, there is much to contemplate.

Minds on the move

With the advent of the globalization age,  the phenomenon which was until recently referred to as the brain drain/brain gain has morphed into something perhaps better described as brain circulation. This may be attributed in large part to the existence of global value chains, unprecedented levels of international trade, travel and migration, the rising incidence of work and study abroad,  and the intensification of connectivity in general. Today, the physical location of the workplace is often of minimal consequence, and it represents less of a barrier to possible partnerships than has ever been the case previously. Although security concerns related to the risk of terrorism and spread of religious extremism may intervene as a new obstacle to free movement, the daunting ideological differences which featured as such prominent impediments during the Cold War have in large part melted away. On balance, labour mobility and personnel exchange – not to mention refugee flows – have increased dramatically. This has contributed to the growth of diaspora communities of varying types all around the globe.

In the case of scientists, and conditioned in part by the particular area of specialization, most international relocation undertaken for research and training purposes has traditionally been from developing to developed countries. The despatch of remittances notwithstanding, this has tended to be seen mainly in terms of creating winners and losers. While that pattern – and those perceptions – are still in evidence, today the situation is far less cut and dry. The  prospect of collaborating with colleagues in China, India, Brazil, Turkey or South Africa is for some scientists as appealing an option as that of working with peers in more traditional centres of excellence.  The calculus of global scientific cooperation, in other words, is evolving. This trend is accelerating, and with the growing incidence of international scientific and R&D partnerships, brain circulation is increasing and adding to the size and number of (notional) diaspora science communities. This is happening not only in Europe, the USA, Japan and South Korea, but world-wide.

Cross-cutting implications for international science policy

Through their contribution to evidence-based knowledge creation and knowledge-based problem solving, DSCs are potentially an important science diplomacy resource for both sending and receiving states. From a Canadian science policy perspective, the possible  international implications associated with scientific diasporas are particularly multi-dimensional. Globalization  has translated into the presence of a growing cadre of foreign born scientists working or studying in this country, and Canadians undoubtedly benefit. But the skills and abilities embedded in that  group may also be relevant to addressing some of the challenges facing their home countries. Similarly, the presence of a rising number of Canadians engaged in scientific activities abroad  will bring much to their foreign employers, but it may also be pertinent to the pursuit of Canadian foreign policy objectives in the places where they work.  Both the foreign-born scientific  diaspora in Canada, therefore, and the Canadian scientific diaspora overseas can theoretically contribute to the achievement of the Government of Canada’s international policy goals.

It may be that DSCs represent an important element in the emerging architecture of science diplomacy and transnational innovation. Yet the question remains: how can this potential be captured, with DSCs operationalized as tools of international policy? If DSCs exist as something resembling coherent, self-identifying “communities”, then how might these communities of expatriate expertise be tapped to help address development and security challenges in their countries of origin and to hasten the advance of peaceful, prosperous international relations across the board? Can the collective knowledge, cultural understanding, and linguistic capacities of DSCs (or networks) be harnessed and mobilized to produce win/win outcomes for the mutual benefit of both home and host governments?

Maybe. Or alternatively, it may be DSCs have been unduly laden with fanciful imaginings by underemployed policy wonks. What, for instance,  if the majority of foreign born scientists with only their shared nationality in common would actually prefer to leave the past behind and concentrate instead upon getting on with their work and building a new life?

Much remains unknown and there are no foregone conclusions.

To better understand how DSCs might be configured to serve the purposes of science diplomacy and international policy, it will be necessary to drill deeper.

More on the current state of play, and a review of some concrete steps which might be considered by the newly elected Government of Canada should it attempt to cultivate and use DSCs as an  instrument of science diplomacy, will follow in a future posting.