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Science for Peace

In tumultuous times, science diplomacy can help keep the world stable — if we let it.

By Fintan Burke

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In December of 1951, at a time of high tension in Europe, representatives from twelve nations met in Paris and agreed to create a new, international center dedicated to peaceful nuclear research. Three years later, it officially launched in Switzerland as the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or CERN. Its members included two former Axis countries (West Germany and Italy) along with Yugoslavia and the United Kingdom, all treated as equals. European politicians applauded a project that prevented brain drain to the United States; scientists celebrated the opportunity to collaborate on some of the biggest questions in physics.

CERN was, and remains, one of the most successful examples of science diplomacy: using collaborative research, rather than guns or economic sanctions, to help nations achieve their goals.

But now, at another time of European tension, science diplomacy faces an uncertain future. Shortly after invading Ukraine, Russia declared it would withdraw from the 15-nation International Space Station. Officials in the United States and the European Union have cut ties with Russian science organizations. Even CERN decided not to renew its cooperation contracts with Russia. A former secretary at the German Ministry of Education and Research tweeted that “to put it bluntly, in the case of a brutal act of aggression that violates international law, there exists no science diplomacy!”

These post-Ukraine developments mark not a one-off crisis but the culmination of geopolitics that have put international science in a more perilous position than it has been in for decades. Western politicians have grown increasingly concerned that foreign governments, usually China, are taking advantage of open science to steal patents and technology. In the U.S. in particular, agencies have grown more aggressive in restricting travel and funding to reduce the influence of foreign researchers.

People often regard science as something that is (or should be) separate from politics, which misses a deeper truth. The weakening of trans-national scientific collaborations threatens to make a dangerous world even more dangerous. In an era of new wars and anti-globalization, we need science in our politics more than ever.

Science diplomacy in the modern sense got its start in the mid-19th century, when professional scientists organized themselves into a large number of national academies. In 1899 several of these groups clubbed together to form the International Association of Academies, hoping to tap into their diplomatic potential. A contemporary editorial in the journal Nature said the new association proved science “can assert itself even when the political atmosphere is not unclouded.” The International Association of Academies went bankrupt in 1913 due to lack of funding, however.

After World War I, scientists from the former Allied nations formed the International Research Council and managed to expand their membership to the former Central Power countries. This effort also faltered, unfortunately. Allied leaders worried that the Council might contradict their post-war foreign policy. When the Central Power countries eventually did join, they were embittered by their slow admission process, with many German academics turning down their invitations. The council collapsed in 1931.

Scientists finally managed to wield meaningful diplomatic power after World War II, when the creation of CERN was the first in a string of successes. To promote collaboration, the International Council of Science Unions proposed making 1957-58 the “International Geophysical Year,” ultimately drawing 67 nations into the project to study Earth as a single system. At a time of overlapping national claims in Antarctica, the Council also encouraged all parties to focus instead on scientific exploration there. The effort worked, as countries competed to see which could build the most impressive base. In 1959, the U.S., U.S.S.R., and ten other nations signed the Antarctic Treaty, stipulating that all activity there would be peaceful. It arguably became the first arms-control agreement of the Cold War.

As part of a backlash against globalization, countries are increasingly exploiting international science for nationalist goals.

The U.S.-Japan Committee on Science Cooperation was another notable success in uniting former enemy nations. Announced by president John F Kennedy during a 1961 White House dinner for the Japanese prime minister, the committee had a slow start, but it soon flourished by focusing on common challenges such as earthquake detection and oncology. The more recent Joint High-Level Committee on Science and Technology has evolved from a competitive to a collaborative alliance between the United States and Japan.

All of that success rests on a shaky foundation, however. As part of a broad backlash against globalization, countries are increasingly exploiting international science for nationalist goals. Beginning in 2008, China’s Thousand Talents Plan encouraged Chinese researchers working abroad to continue their work in China. The U.S. government soon accused their Chinese counterparts of using the program to illegally sweep up American intellectual property.

In 2018, former president Donald Trump launched The China Initiative, ostensibly to investigate suspected espionage but increasingly used to target researchers who did not disclose ties to China in their grant applications. It was devastating for international science: A recent report showed that 23 percent of scientists of Chinese descent said they were going to stop collaborations with researchers in China because of the initiative. At the same time, the U.S. National Institutes of Health launched an aggressive clampdown on grantees failing to disclose foreign ties. This has led to universities firing scientists — often more than they disclose. Other restrictions have led to Chinese researchers fearing travel to the U.S. in case they are caught up in any crackdown.

The Covid pandemic added new strains. The mainstream media in the U.S. latched on to the idea that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, fueling anti-China sentiment. China developed vaccines early and distributed them to low-to-middle income countries, promoting it as an act of “vaccine diplomacy,” but refused to approve more effective Western vaccines when they became available; both China and Russia may have spread disinformation about the efficacy of Western vaccines. International research cooperation also did little to prevent wealthy countries from hoarding vaccines, despite official promises to send large quantities to the global south.

Science diplomacy has also been harmed from within by overconfidence and excessive promises. At times, leading advocates have argued that science diplomacy could reshape world trade, contain COVID-19, and bring North Korea into the international fold. Joint research on a North Korean volcano cannot change the mind of a totalitarian regime.

Today, science is increasingly treated as just another strategic element on the geopolitical battlefield. As a result, the world risks losing the tremendous potential of science diplomacy to promote political stability and intellectual advancement. Fortunately, it’s not too late for a revival.

CERN continues to serve as a model for promoting peace through science. A big reason for its success: It doesn’t try to escape politics. Each of the 23 member states has two delegates on the council — one representing national scientific interests, the other the national government — but gets only one vote. Both delegates therefore must agree on their decisions, serving as equals to resolve issues. The council as a whole then aims for “a consensus as close as possible to unanimity.” CERN also limits most research placements to around five years, allowing steady opportunities for young researchers to build international links.

In 1999, CERN inspired the SESAME synchrotron light source in Jordan, which uses a particle accelerator to study details of molecular structures. SESAME brings together researchers from eight often antagonistic Middle East countries, including Israel, Iran, Palestine and Egypt. It has also reversed the region’s own ‘brain drain’ to the West. A group of African countries is now taking early steps to start their own light source to expand national ties and to keep expertise closer to home.

But a broader revival of science diplomacy will require adapting the principles of past success and applying them to a changed world. The climate crisis offers both a challenge and a huge opportunity. Science diplomacy has always worked best when scientists set specific goals and have a place in the room leading some of the negotiations. Climate change is drawing more scientists into that role. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement emerged from researchers and diplomats working together to hammer out specific targets to limit global warming. At the recent COP27 meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, delegates reached an unexpected agreement to establish an international fund to compensate nations harmed by climate change, prodded in part by science activists.

Science diplomacy is crucial both for maintaining international peace and for advancing science itself.

In an especially encouraging development, major nations seem increasingly aware of the importance of science diplomacy for achieving prized political goals. France and Italy now appoint scientists as counselors or attachés. Over the past decade the UK’s Science and Innovation Network has brought local researchers to work alongside the diplomats, touting the benefits to business. Since 2010 the U.S. Science Envoy Program has sought academics to help with foreign policy goals, such as getting more women scientists around the world and protecting research transparency. When re-joining the Paris Climate agreement in 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “climate change and science diplomacy can never again be 'add-ons' in our foreign policy discussions.”

Some universities are easing the path of scientists into diplomatic settings by offering courses in science diplomacy, such as the graduate course at the Rockefeller University in the U.S. or training courses in Venice, Italy and Barcelona, Spain. Another course is being run in Trieste, Italy by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Academy of Sciences. The early generation of modern science diplomats are now advocating for the next generation to join. It’s just a start, though. Research institutions could do a lot more to support this career path, just as they encourage scientists to become entrepreneurs.

Science diplomacy is crucial both for maintaining international peace and for advancing science itself. International research collaborations were crucial for understanding the dangers of climate change and for bringing the Covid pandemic under control. In the era of anti-globalization and populism, political forces threaten those collaborations. The best way to fight back is for scientists to recognize the value of politics in their work. More politicians may then recognize the value of science in theirs.

March 23, 2023