Q&A: Vaughan Turekian on the AAAS’s new science & diplomacy quarterly

Turekian: 'The diplomatic community could benefit greatly from listening to the scientific community' Copyright: AAAS

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SciDev.Net speaks to Vaughan Turekian, editor-in-chief of the AAAS’s new quarterly publication, Science & Diplomacy, which launched this week.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has just launched Science & Diplomacy, a new quarterly publication that aims to serve as a forum for ideas, analysis and research related to the emerging field of science diplomacy by scientists, diplomats and international thinkers.

Its target audience includes foreign policymakers and analysts, scientists and science administrators, and academics and students.

The new title’s editor-in-chief is Vaughan Turekian, the director of the AAAS’s Center for Science Diplomacy, which opened in 2008 to use science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding.

SciDev.Net spoke to Turekian about the goals for the new publication, as well as the the AAAS’s current work with the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), which is intended to share perspectives on developing better links between science with foreign policy.

Why launch this publication now?

Since starting our Centre for Science Diplomacy in 2008, we have found that there is a group of people who are increasingly using the words and terminology associated with this activity. We therefore felt that all those involved in the field of science diplomacy could benefit from exploring its intellectual basis.

This is an opportunity for a community that sometimes doesn’t have a voice — the science community in diplomacy — to develop its own scholarly work in a way that will help underpin the field, and provide people with useful new ways of dealing with the issues and problems involved.

We know there is a role for the economic and financial communities to talk to each other on the international arena. But what is the role on the diplomatic side for scientists talking to each other? Science and innovation play a role in economic growth. But how do you ensure that discussions between scientists become embedded in the diplomatic relationships that are being built?

How will the publication function?

Part of the reason for launching this publication is to explore that intellectual underpinning of the interface between science and foreign policy. For example: What is the potential? What are the barriers? How do people think about it? These are all ways in which any field of study needs to be developed.

Science diplomacy is now an identifiable field of activity, and we need different people and communities to let us know how they view it, and point out the opportunities to do things.

The plan is to use the publication to provide access to ideas and information on what people think about the role that science plays — or could or should play — in foreign policy, whether bilateral or regional.

The publication will be free for everyone to access. It’s not designed to be anything more than a way for the science and foreign policy communities, in any country, to learn from one another.

Although the publication is published by the AAAS, it will be an independent foreign policy publication, written to appeal to a broad audience. We will seek contributions from individuals (including authors from outside the United States) that will go through a light peer-review to ensure that the articles are credible and accurate. The idea is not to reflect the AAAS’s view, but that of authors and experts who have thought about the issues.  

Our hope is that the publication will be written by people with a lot of experience in science diplomacy who can provide examples of its application.

One example is the creation of ITER, the international nuclear fusion energy project currently under construction in France. This is a good, but also challenging, example of where the science community really wanted to push on with developing fusion technology, but where the diplomatic community was needed to advise on how to deal with such big science’ projects, and whether there were lessons that could be learned from other projects.

We’d call that diplomacy for science — how the diplomatic community has helped the science community achieve something that it needs.

Examples of science diplomacy often focus on the American perspective. But there are also important examples outside the United States. We are looking to the international community to share its experiences and propose issues that we should be covering.

The East African Community, for example, [whose members are Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda] are currently trying to agree a basis for regional cooperation. This debate is not restricted to science. But it raises questions — on which we hope to receive articles — about the role that science can play in this process.  

Then there are countries that are just beginning to think about issues such as how to improve their capacity to do science, how to develop a science capacity within their foreign ministries, and even how to participate in negotiations on technical topics.  

Who is the publication aimed at?

This is the first publication to focus specifically on science and diplomacy. At present we are still in the process of building a level of academic credibility about the topic of science diplomacy. But we have three types of potential readers in mind.

The first are students, researchers and others working in international studies departments at universities.  

The second target audience are those who work in think tanks. These foreign policy experts may not be in governments, but they think about issues such as how countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can develop closer links with each other, and the role of science in achieving this goal.

If someone is beginning to think about these issues, developing foreign policy papers and carrying out their own research, they may decide to submit an article to us, on the basis that the issue has a science perspective within it.

The third group of potential readers are practitioners, not only in the international sections of ministries of science and science agencies, but also in those parts of foreign offices that have to deal with issues that are underpinned by science.

You also launched a new collaboration with TWAS last year. Do you have any projects already planned?

The collaboration with TWAS is based on a recognition that there is an interest within both institutions in taking advantage of our collective networks and of our common interests in these areas of expertise, even though we are reaching different audiences.

We are beginning to look at what specific activities we can do, and have already identified a number of potential joint activities, such as fellowships programmes and workshops.

Some sort of ’round table’ on issues about science and diplomacy might also be useful, as there are very different perspectives on the way that science diplomacy is viewed, and in the interface between science and foreign policy, between the United States and other countries.

For example, one might imagine institutions and organisations in the South meeting with experts from the North to discuss issues at the frontier between science and foreign policy where the two worlds might better interact with one another.

TWAS’s regional offices are already looking into the types of mechanisms that can increase the science capacity of foreign ministries. After all, almost every issue that foreign ministries — regardless of where you are — have to deal with, will have an underpinning somewhere in science and its applications. Issues such as climate change, sustainable development, health, energy, even security; each presents a foreign policy issue that contains some science.

This is looking at science diplomacy as not just building new scientific collaborations, but as a way of bringing scientists and diplomats together to see what they can learn from each other.

Yes, it’s a subtle difference, but an important one. We need to understand the broader implications of science diplomacy. How do you establish a relationship between the scientific and diplomatic communities that recognises the differences between them, but also accepts that there can be benefits in one side helping the other?

For example, science can help to build diplomatic relationships in situations in which political differences exist by bringing to the fore a joint interest in important scientific questions.

Are you also trying to send a message that science diplomacy is more than the United States pursuing its diplomatic goals through soft tactics?

Science diplomacy is not the purview of one country or region, but an approach. We do not see this as the AAAS saying "we’re going to use this to build initiatives between the US and the developing world" — even though that may be one of the benefits.

Rather, we are saying that on the intellectual development side of science diplomacy, a working partner with access to communities that have different interests and expertise can help to promote understanding of how science diplomacy might be useful and what it might mean.

Link to Science & Diplomacy