Negotiations on Iranian Nuclear Programme.

The ministers of foreign affairs of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, France, China, the European Union and Iran (Lausanne, 30 March 2015). Source: United States Department of State.

At the end of last month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hosted a conference on Scientific drivers for diplomacy.

Opening the conference, AAAS CEO Rush Holt gave examples of how ‘science diplomacy’ has worked in practice; the recent Iranian nuclear deal would not have been possible without the scientific expertise of Ernest Moniz, the US Secretary of Energy and PhD physicist from MIT, and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran.

There were many other examples of scientific collaborations which cut across political divides.

These included the Malta Conferences, which bring together scientists from across the Middle East along with a range of Nobel Laureates; the SESAME project in Jordan, a synchrotron for the Middle East modelled on CERN; ongoing scientific collaboration between US and Cuban scientists which predates the recent thaw in relations;and collaboration between UK volcanologists and their counterparts from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to understand the volcanology of Mount Paektu, a volcano on the DPRK’s border with China, supported by the Royal Society and AAAS.

The concept of ‘science diplomacy’ is becoming increasingly popular. Carlos Moedas, the new European Commissioner for Research, argues that ‘it is essential that we step up our engagement with the rest of the world by fostering science diplomacy and international cooperation’. He spoke on these topics in March in a public lecture at the Royal Society and subsequently addressed a high level conference on science diplomacy in Amman with HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan in April this year.

More material on science diplomacy can be found in the 2010 Royal Society/AAAS report on New frontiers in science diplomacy, and via the AAAS Centre for Science Diplomacy which has its own journal Science and Diplomacy, the latest edition of which includes an article by Sir Martyn Poliakoff, the Society’s Foreign Secretary. The AAAS also runs a Fellowships programme which provides opportunities for scientists and engineers to gain exposure to the world of public policy; one recent recipient has blogged of her experience on the front line of the fight against Ebola.

As the concept of ‘science diplomacy’ develops, a key question will be whether the scientific and foreign policy communities can work together without compromising their different, but sometimes complementary objectives.

As the Society has previously advocated, the scientific values of rationality, transparency and universality can enable science to be used to build constructive international relations. However, the risks to scientific independence and integrity can be considerable if the science is, or is perceived to be, subservient to a political agenda, as some have argued was the case with some collaborative initiatives during the Cold War.

The potential for science and diplomacy to complement each other to mutual benefit is considerable, but should also be handled with care.