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Science diplomacy has the potential to help us address some of the most pressing challenges of our time such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. In both cases science diplomacy has already illustrated its potential. Yet, we are still very far from achieving our global goals.

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Science diplomacy has become somewhat of a buzzword and is used in many different ways by different actors. So in the following, let us unpack the concept of science diplomacy and highlight some of its practices. 

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What is science diplomacy?

There are three types of science diplomacy (AAAS and Royal Society, 2010): 

  • Science in diplomacy is about the use of scientific advice for foreign policy decision-making. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations is an important example. Established in 1988, the IPCC brings together the latest scientific advice on climate change.
  • Diplomacy for science often include large-scale research facilities, which given their cost and resource intensity can only be built through collaboration among a number of countries. The most  example of diplomacy for science is the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which was established in 1954 after negotiations between 12 founding member states.  
  • Science for diplomacy is the promotion of a more peaceful world through scientific cooperation. CERN is also an example of science for diplomacy. A commonly cited recent example of science for diplomacy is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), a research facility based in Jordan. It’s members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey. This is very notable as the diplomatic relationships between some of the members are very strained. Iran54 and Israel, for example, have not had direct diplomatic relationships since 1979.

How is science diplomacy conducted?

  • Development and management of international cooperation
  • Negotiations
  • Diplomatic reporting

A good example of the practice of science diplomacy is CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN. Its founding reveals two different aspects of practising science diplomacy. Have a sneak peak into our science diplomacy online course and learn more about CERN’s origin story. 


Why does science diplomacy matter?

Science diplomacy mirrors the importance of science for modern society from the fight against pandemics to nuclear non-proliferation and the fight against climate change. Science for diplomacy can also contribute towards more international cooperation and, ultimately, more peaceful international relations.


Who are science diplomats?

States and their representatives

The main actors are states. According to Flink and Schreiterer (2010) they are motivated to participate in science diplomacy by the following main goals:

  • Access: Ensure access to ‘researchers, research findings and research facilities natural resources and capital’ (Flink and Schreiterer, 2010, p. 669)
  • Promotion: Promote the country’s research and development achievements
  • Influence: Impact public opinions abroad and the opinion of foreign decisionmakers
  • Research cooperation: Support participation in large-scale research efforts that would otherwise not be realistic or possible
  • Addressing global challenges: Work towards addressing global challenges such as climate change

When it comes to putting these goals into practice, diplomats and official representatives are called upon.

Scientists serving as science attachés

Some of the first science attachés were scientists who were sent abroad to represent their country. We already mentioned the zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles, the US science attaché in the 19th century. The USA maintained one of the biggest networks of science attachés, including 24 attachés at the height of the science attachés programme in 1987 (Linkov et al., 2014).

The appointment of science attachés often follows broader strategic interests.77 In 2009, former US president Obama appointed three science attachés to Muslim-majority countries following his outreach efforts to the Muslim world (El-Baz, 2010).

Many examples of science attachés come from the Global North.78 However, looking more closely, we can identify cases of scientists acting as state representatives from the Global South. The term ‘science attaché’ is often not used in these cases, and does not strictly apply, but parts of the practice of these individuals do fit within a broader understanding of the work of science attachés. Hornsby and Parshotam (2018) looked at the participation of states from sub-Saharan Africa in international food standard-setting. They found that some ‘scientists act as state representatives, advancing an interest-based position in negotiations around scientifically based international standards’.

Scientists who serve in this role need to have a good understanding of diplomacy and international relations. More often than not, their science communication skills are called upon. They also need to navigate a fine line between their role as scientists and their role as envoys. Science advisors working with foreign ministries have a global network called the  Foreign Ministries S&T Advice Network (FMSTAN).

Officials from other ministries and national institutions

If we look at current case studies, we see that some science attachés are seconded from other ministries, national scientific institutions, and other relevant domestic stakeholders. Looking at the case of France, for example, Flink and Schreiterer (2010) found that science attachés ‘are seconded from different institutional stakeholders according to their individual agenda with respect to the region’ that they are sent to.

It is also worth noting that in some cases, other ministries, such as the ministry for the economy or science and innovation, take the lead on science diplomacy efforts. For example, South Africa created the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, which became the Department of Science and Technology in 2002, and was later renamed the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). It aims to pursue a ‘concerted science diplomacy strategy’ (Pandor, 2012). Different institutional cultures and perspectives on the main goals of science diplomacy can, in these cases, complicate finding a coherent and sustained approach.

Diplomats with a portfolio that includes science and technology

Diplomats who serve as official representatives of their countries also practice science diplomacy. Some simply touch upon science diplomacy practices as part of their work. For example, trade negotiators might need to liaise and collaborate with scientists back home on specialised questions. Diplomats based in Geneva might find themself in meetings at CERN regarding their countries’ membership.

In addition, career diplomats are also appointed to specific roles that give their practice a clear focus on science diplomacy. These include: special ambassadors or envoys for science diplomacy, scientific counsellors, and tech ambassadors.

Networks abroad

There are also outreach posts of states or groups of states for diplomatic and scientific interactions. They engage in science diplomacy, but do not have the status of an embassy. Sometimes they have the status of a consulate85, but only perform consular work in major emergency situations. Examples include:


Where is science diplomacy performed?

International organisations (IOs) are the main multilateral venue for science diplomacy. Examples of IO activities are: 


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