Navigating science diplomacy’s potential and pitfalls

February 26, 2024

This story was published as part of the 2024 Travel Fellowship Program to AAAS organized by the NASW Education Committee, providing science journalism practice and experience for undergraduate and graduate students.

Story by Jasmine Pathan
Mentored and edited by Tom Ulrich

DENVER — Collaboration in science can enhance diplomacy and support a thriving scientific ecosystem, highlighting the role of science diplomacy in strengthening international cooperation. But while acknowledging those benefits, Roger Pielke Jr., a professor in the Center for Science & Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, worries that leveraging science for diplomatic purposes – as opposed to using diplomacy to promote science – can pose risks to scientific integrity and objectivity.

“We need people with expertise in science advice to help facilitate the practice of science diplomacy,” Pielke told an audience during a panel session at the 2024 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting on Feb. 17. “Political leaders have to treat science advice with the serious and independence that it deserves.”

Applied thoughtfully, science diplomacy can effectively strengthen diplomatic relationships and find creative solutions to shared challenges. Pielke cited anecdotes about how the late Donald Hornig, science advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, used science as a diplomatic tool with the USSR and South Korea in the 1960s. Such efforts led to joint research institutes and enduring partnerships. “It really became clear to [Johnson] that science and technology had a role to play in the conduct of foreign affairs,” said Pielke.

Roger Pielke (right) and Donald Hornig (left), the Science Advisor to President Lyndon Johnson from 1964 to 1969, meet during a 2005 interview. Courtesy of Roger Pielke

Speaking from her own trans-Atlantic experiences, panelist Patricia Gruber, the Science and Technology Adviser to the United States (US) State Department’s Office, noted how shared values such as democratic governance, fair competition, and respect for human rights have created a strong foundation for science diplomacy between the US and the European Union (EU). “Our willingness to try out different approaches, openly and transparently communicate with each other and learn from one another and adapt helps us to collectively improve [as collaborative partners],” she said, especially in the face of rapidly advancing technologies like artificial intelligence, balancing the benefits of technologies’ global spread with national security, reduced societal trust in science, and other rising challenges.

Citing an assertive Russia, a rising People’s Republic of China, and other geopolitical tensions, panelist Jan Marco Müller, the European Commission’s coordinator for science diplomacy, emphasized the need for strategic frameworks for science diplomacy, pointing to efforts to create such a framework within the EU. In creating such a framework, “[t]he first [pillar] is about using science diplomacy strategically to tackle geopolitical challenges in a fragmented, multipolar world,” he said, emphasizing the need to work across borders with groups with diverse expertise and perspectives.

Science-Based Policy to Protect Integrity

Pielke voiced concerns about the misapplication of science diplomacy. Distinguishing advocacy for science-based policy (which prioritizes unbiased findings) and aligning evidence with political objectives (which can undermine scientific integrity), he warned about “the loss of independence of expert advisory mechanisms and stealth issue advocacy among experts.”

Events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic cast these challenges in stark relief. Pielke pointed to the World Health Organization's recent pandemic agreement, noting the need for clarity on critical issues, such as investigating the pandemic’s origins and the importance of specifically and formally defining advisory committees’ roles and responsibilities. “The bottom line is to improve institutions for advice, and that’s a big job,” he said. “We have to treat science advice with the same seriousness that we treat diplomacy.”

The future of science policy domestically and diplomacy internationally hinges on a commitment to transparency, accountability, and a shared acknowledgment of science’s pivotal role in shaping global diplomatic relations. “Science diplomacy is a dynamic and never-ending process as technology and innovation proceed at a rapid pace relative to our ability to make policy,” Gruber said. “[Experts] have to work to create a values-based competitive environment that’s open, transparent, and equitable. [Creating this environment] requires a thoughtful balance of maintaining a robust fundamental science ecosystem and implementing research security when appropriate.”


Jasmine Pathan (@jasmino_acid; she/her) is a neuroscience PhD candidate at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. She writes and edits for the Society for Neuroscience-affiliated blog, BraiNY Blog, and is a freelance science writer for the Kavli Foundation. Reach her at jpathan@gradcenter.cuny.edu and view her digital portfolio.

Mentored and edited by Tom Ulrich

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