Science diplomacy must be more ambitious

Poor countries merit equal support whatever their religion, culture and natural resources Copyright: Flickr/ Michael Foley Photography

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Science diplomacy must aim to help all developing countries and not just promote narrow political interests, says Naiyyum Choudhury.

The idea of ‘science diplomacy’ is fast gaining ground as an effective tool for building ties between developed and developing countries and forging closer working relationships.

On one level, scientists have a long history of transcending political barriers to tackle common problems. They were, for example, instrumental in maintaining relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

And today, scientists are making vital links between many Muslim countries and Israel, through collaborative research projects such as the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization, which gives grants to teams working across the divide, despite the lack of diplomatic relations.

But now many countries are also looking to build on scientific relationships to reduce negative perceptions and achieve broader political objectives. US president Barack Obama, in particular, has put his weight behind a programme of science envoys and has boosted USAID funding to help meet foreign policy objectives.

If science can be used to meet political objectives, it can also be a tool for development. Tackling many of the issues facing poor countries — from health and hygiene to environmental degradation and the food crisis — will require the world’s combined scientific efforts. Science diplomacy can open the door for collaborative action to mitigate the effects of poverty and lead to greater global stability.

Including all developing countries

But if science diplomacy is to make an impact where it matters most — in the poorest countries — then current efforts, led by the United States, will have to broaden their scope beyond a select group of predominantly Islamic countries that are either rich in oil or pose a potential nuclear threat.

There are many countries that are in neither camp and lack resources and infrastructure to tackle their own development problems.

As a tool for development, science diplomacy should not make distinctions between Islamic and non-Islamic nations — rather, it should address the gap between all developed and developing countries.

Of course, diplomacy is ultimately driven by national interests, and rightly so. But it is ethically unacceptable to ignore the millions of people who badly need to improve their living conditions. If the United States and others do not take this view for the new science diplomacy, high hopes will end in frustration and mistrust.

The United States should see that taking a broader perspective to championing scientific efforts for the developing world is in its own interests.

Poor countries merit equal attention and support whatever their religion, culture and natural resources.

Involving local scientists

Another challenge for science diplomacy lies in ensuring that scientists — from both sides — are involved in the process. Diplomatic missions must include people with a proven scientific recordand an impeccable commitment to using science as a tool for development. The aim: to have a scientific approach to diplomacy, and not a diplomatic approach to science.

This could prove particularly hard in developing countries, where there is often a gap between scientists and policymakers. The latter often do not trust the capabilities of their scientific communities, which frequently fail to show any significant impact on society.

Many scientists in developing countries stay in their laboratories and do not interact well with industry or the public sector to understand their problems and help find solutions. Many focus on research and PhDs abroad.

Even if they are keen to get involved, they often find it difficult to do so. For example, the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences offers its services to the government but is kept out of implementing national policies, and its science is mostly sidelined.

By working closely with the local scientific community, science diplomats can improve the situation — by increasing scientists’ understanding that they are very much needed to inform development strategies and by convincing policymakers to invest in worthwhile scientific projects for the benefit of society.

Pay more than lip service

And the momentum must be maintained in the long run.

A case in point: as chairman of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, I was a witness to the science and technology cooperation agreement signed by the then US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, and the Bangladesh Minister for Science and ICT, on 1 March 2003.

The agreement established a legal framework to facilitate broad, bilateral cooperation in science and technology between public and private entities from the United States and Bangladeshi scientific communities. It made big headlines at the time but nothing has happened since.

Such agreements made in the name of science diplomacy must reflect a genuine commitment to work together for development, rather than mere lip service.

Science diplomacy must emphasise the real problems of countries and focus on collaborative projects to find scientific and technological solutions.

It will be effective only if concerted efforts are made by both scientists and science diplomats to link to national policymakers and build relationships between public and private laboratories in the developed and developing world.

Naiyyum Choudhury is a professor at BRAC University in Bangladesh. He is also secretary of the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences and former chairman of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.