At the 2018 Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Toulouse, France, different topics from the fields of science communication and science policy were discussed. Some conference talks were dedicated especially to the field of science diplomacy. One frequently discussed and central question was: “Is it possible that extracurricular activities efforts outside of the laboratory might have special value?” This is how Nobel Laureate Peter Agre formulates the crux in an interview from 2013.
Nowadays, more than ever, the idea of a scientist as a ‘lab rat’ is outdated. A variety of different initiatives that support the involvement and perception of scientists in public are stronger than ever before. Over the past few years, numerous citizen science initiatives have been established and the number of public and private agencies asking scientists to be involved in society has been noticeably increased. Last but not least, various parliaments in Europe have been recognizing the need of scientific evidence to prepare and take political decisions (Austria and Spain among the latest). On the same side the involvement of science into diplomatic grounds has been so far less advertised.
The term ‘science diplomacy’ comes handy to define situations when science meets diplomacy and vice versa or when science helps solving policy issues. Successful application of science diplomacy can be seen in the establishment of institutes like CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), one of the world’s largest and most respected centers for scientific research, and EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory), Europe’s leader laboratory for molecular biology. Both research centers are supported by many European states which agreed to fund infrastructures to make scientific research possible through international collaborations. Another example of science diplomacy on the ground is represented by the multilateral Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer which was created by the framework and regulatory measures of the Vienna Convention in 1987. The Montreal Protocol not only specifies the substances that are responsible for depletion of the ozone layer but also establishes a set of steps to stop consumption and production of HCFCs (Hydrochlorofluorocarbons). The conclusion of this international treaty was a good example of how scientific evidence can be successfully used to reach a policy agreement.
What seems basic and essential to a scientist, such as travelling or cooperating with international colleagues to reach a common goal, might feel less compelling in other fields. This is where science can be helpful for diplomatic grounds. Given examples of this commitment can be seen from the Nobel Laureates effort to meet young scientists at Lindau. Especially, when the interdisciplinary meeting gives the opportunity for laureates to meet among themselves and with young scientists coming from entirely different fields of research. This collaborative exchange might feel a lot like the diplomatic grounds of Lindau! Besides that, a recent notable example of the involvement of a Nobel Laureate into diplomatic grounds was highlightes by Peter Agre during a speech at the 67th Lindau Meeting. He talked about his commitment to develop institutes devoted to contrast the diffusion of malaria in Africa (Zambia and Zimbabwe) after his discovery of the role that aquaporins play in the parasite life. Agre himself admits to have been largely inspired by Linus Pauling whom he describes like a rare individual, that achieved unparalleled success as an innovative researcher, extremely popular lecturer as well as an humanitarian and peace activist. Pauling is still the only person in history to receive two undivided Nobel Prizes, for Chemistry in 1954 and for Peace in 1962 for his involvement in the ban of nuclear weapons testing.
Another good example of science diplomacy led by Nobel Laureates, was given by Abdus Salam, laureate in Physics in 1979, who led the efforts for the foundation of what was initially called the ‘Third World Academy of Sciences’, TWAS. It is located in Trieste, Italy, and since 2004 it is known as ‘The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries. The foundation was established in the belief that low- and middle-income countries could build the knowledge and skills that are necessary to address challenges such as hunger, disease and poverty by building strengths in science and engineering. Definitively all these examples and many more, show that exceptionally good scientists can be indeed actively contributing to diplomatic grounds.
With old global challenges worsening and new ones arising, science diplomacy can lay the base to solve today’s urgent problems such as environmental and technological challenges, climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence or the warranted access to medicines. On the other hand, the mistrust in political institutions and corporations is arising. As Nobel Laureate Peter Agre already mentioned, people vastly prefers scientists over politicians for resolving disputes, and that is undoubtedly an advantage that science diplomacy can exploit. The international network of scientists therefore must be treasured as it represents a unique opportunity to the advantage of research, scientific discoveries and to the resolution of common issues among nations.