Scientific Diplomats: An Oxymoron?

The word ‘diplomacy’ conjures up the synonyms ‘mediation’, ‘negotiation’ and ‘peacekeeping’ – it’s an act of seeing both sides of the story and finding a way to agree on a middle ground.

Science is not like that. Science is right or wrong. It’s based on hard evidence, a long history of testable ideas and a community of people all over the world who ensure self-correction when ‘knowns’ become false.

So in a panel titled ‘Science Opens Diplomatic Doors’ at last week’s New Scientist Live – with speakers such as Robin Grimes, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience and Philosophy at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study – you couldn’t help but wonder: if science strives for exactness and diplomacy for balance, how can they co-exist?

With issues such as climate change, nuclear research and genetic engineering, science isn’t short of controversy. As Grimes noted: “Knowledge itself is a dual-use problem”, in that it can have both a positive and negative effect on the world. Take the nuclear negotiations in Iran, for instance – nuclear research is key for areas such as energy and medicine, but can of course be contributing to building even more powerful weapons. So how can you make science open, exploratory and neutral, but also guard against malevolent uses by states, or even well funded non-state organisations? 

Emma Hennessey, Head of the Science and Innovation Team at the FCO, spoke about the difficulties in getting everyone to sing from the same hymn sheet. With every country having different monetary, social and education levels, even if everyone agrees on the problem, agreeing on the same solution can be nigh on impossible.

You could argue though that the problem is not mediation, but in fact speed. We’ve seen with the development of drones that governments are so far behind that as soon as they agree on laws regarding the machines, they have already out-flown the rules. Maybe when it comes to diplomats, their knowledge of advancements and issues at the forefront of science is so far lagging that the right solutions aren’t even being considered. Richard Bulge, Chief Executive of Wilton Park – an executive agency of the FCO – argued that it’s the recruitment of diplomats which poses the issues: “the government doesn’t employ scientists to do things other than science, but they’ll employ classicists to do policy.”

In the same week that Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg announced a fund of $3bn dedicated to cure, prevent or manage all human disease by the end of the century, it’s not crazy to assume that the private sector is where the big science decisions will be made. But with the US Government investing 10 times that on medical research, scale is always going to be the limiting factor of the faster parties.

Science is, in its purest sense, a highly collaborative pursuit. You only have to look at the success of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider – which not only proved the existence of the Higgs Boson, but was also the place at which the Internet was invented – to see what happens when scientists from all over the world work together. The panel were sceptical as to the future success of the proposed Chinese version of the accelerator due to the more insular approach being taken. As Bulge said: “Science is going to rely on large expensive laboratories and instruments, so we need to run them globally so all can benefit”.

So it seems like the solution to diplomacy’s science problem is one of understanding. Of better understanding how to foster scientific collaboration; of better understanding the underlying forces at work beneath each country’s foreign and domestic policy; and of better understanding the advancements of research at the forefront of global solutions.  

Having open, honest conversation on a stage at New Scientist Live – in front of an audience of researchers, the media, corporates, students and the public – is a strong statement. Only by opening up the debate to outside the negotiation rooms can we hope to better our knowledge of the issues at play and the attempts to remedy them. There was a strong sense of hope the future was indeed bright.

But is conversation really enough? 

Maybe its not slow, fragmented diplomacy that we need, but instead an acceptance that if we’re to truly advance science in our ever-more connected world, we must put global above local, proof above speculation and speed above bureaucracy. The empathetic nature of diplomacy is key for understanding, but not for pushing things forward quickly.

And we need to get moving.