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Using science for diplomatic purposes has obvious attractions and several benefits. But there are limits to what it can achieve.

The scientific community has a deserved reputation for its international perspective — scientists often ignore national boundaries and interests when it comes to exchanging ideas or collaborating on global problems.

So it is not surprising that science attracts the interest of politicians keen to open channels of communication with other states. Signing agreements on scientific and technological cooperation is often the first step for countries wanting to forge closer working relationships.

More significantly, scientists have formed key links behind-the-scenes when more overt dialogue has been impossible. At the height of the Cold War, for example, scientific organisations provided a conduit for discussing nuclear weapons control.

Only so much science can do

Recently, the Obama administration has given this field a new push, in its desire to pursue "soft diplomacy" in regions such as the Middle East. Scientific agreements have been at the forefront of the administration's activities in countries such as Iraq and Pakistan.

But — as emerged from a meeting entitled New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy, held in London this week (1–2 June) — using science for diplomatic purposes is not as straightforward as it seems.

Some scientific collaboration clearly demonstrates what countries can achieve by working together. For example, a new synchrotron under construction in Jordan is rapidly becoming a symbol of the potential for teamwork in the Middle East.

But whether scientific cooperation can become a precursor for political collaboration is less evident. For example, despite hopes that the Middle East synchrotron would help bring peace to the region, several countries have been reluctant to support it until the Palestine problem is resolved.

Indeed, one speaker at the London meeting (organised by the UK's Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science) even suggested that the changes scientific innovations bring inevitably lead to turbulence and upheaval. In such a context, viewing science as a driver for peace may be wishful thinking.

Conflicting ethos

Perhaps the most contentious area discussed at the meeting was how science diplomacy can frame developed countries' efforts to help build scientific capacity in the developing world.

There is little to quarrel with in collaborative efforts that are put forward with a genuine desire for partnership. Indeed, partnership — whether between individuals, institutions or countries — is the new buzzword in the "science for development" community.

But true partnership requires transparent relations between partners who are prepared to meet as equals. And that goes against diplomats' implicit role: to promote and defend their own countries' interests.

John Beddington, the British government's chief scientific adviser, may have been a bit harsh when he told the meeting that a diplomat is someone who is "sent abroad to lie for his country". But he touched a raw nerve.

Worlds apart yet co-dependent

The truth is that science and politics make an uneasy alliance. Both need the other. Politicians need science to achieve their goals, whether social, economic or — unfortunately — military; scientists need political support to fund their research.

But they also occupy different universes. Politics is, at root, about exercising power by one means or another. Science is — or should be — about pursuing robust knowledge that can be put to useful purposes.

A strategy for promoting science diplomacy that respects these differences deserves support. Particularly so if it focuses on ways to leverage political and financial backing for science's more humanitarian goals, such as tackling climate change or reducing world poverty.

But a commitment to science diplomacy that ignores the differences — acting for example as if science can substitute politics (or perhaps more worryingly, vice versa), is dangerous.

The Obama administration's commitment to "soft power" is already faltering. It faces challenges ranging from North Korea's nuclear weapons test to domestic opposition to limits on oil consumption. A taste of reality may be no bad thing.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

Read David Dickson's blog from the Royal Society/AAAS meeting "New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy"

See Letter to the Editor