The rise of science diplomacy: Can universities provide the blueprint for a national strategy?

Research and Innovation
Research and innovation
Public Policy Research and Outreach

By University of Ottawa

Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OVPRI

science diplomacy illustration
The study of science diplomacy and knowledge-sharing on its importance, challenges and issues are central to the new Research Chair in Science Diplomacy at the University of Ottawa, which was created in partnership with the Embassy of France last fall.

The call for nominations for the Research Chair in Science Diplomacy is now open to researchers who wish to critically examine a question or method in fields that intersect diplomacy and science, regardless of the researcher’s discipline, be it the social sciences, science and technology, or medicine.

To enrich the knowledge of our researchers who wish to explore this new field of study, we sought the opinions of experts attending a panel discussion convened to examine the structure of this emerging discipline and understand how scientists from all disciplines can contribute to it.

What exactly does “science diplomacy” mean? That’s the million-dollar question. 

In short, Science diplomacy refers to a specific field of international relations in which the interests of science intersect with those of foreign policy.

Stéphanie Balme, dean of the Collège universitaire at Sciences Po and founding member of the European Science Diplomacy Initiative, says that science diplomacy is best understood through its practice. However, pending clarification, Balme maintains that it is important to establish the limits of this concept so as not to dilute its impact through overly broad definitions. 

Pierre-Bruno Ruffini, a professor of economics at Université Le Havre in Normandie and a former advisor to France’s embassies in Russia and Italy, says that “diplomacy” is the most important key word. In contrast, expressions such as “diplomatic science” and “science for diplomacy” could distract attention from the true meaning of the discipline. 

Patrick Fafard, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and research director of the Global Strategy Lab, observes that countries engage in science diplomacy when they can show a direct correlation between science and their respective governments’ foreign policy. 

Pascal Griset, a professor of contemporary history at Sorbonne Université and coordinator for a project entitled “Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe”, maintains that the emergence of science diplomacy has coincided with the growing global culture of transparency over the past 20 years, as opposed to a time when diplomacy tended to be shrouded in secrecy. 

On the sidelines of the panel discussion, we spoke to Paul Dufour to explore other misunderstood facets of this field. Dufour is affiliated with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa and director of PaulicyWorks. 

How would you describe Canada’s approach to science diplomacy? 

P. Dufour: Science diplomacy in Canada is meandering along. Strictly speaking, we have no national strategy. As a result, we tend to be a little “all over the place.” It’s ambitious, but not necessarily effective! By developing a clear vision, we could target areas of science that dovetail with our national priorities and competitive advantages. That would enable us to make more informed, and better, investment decisions. 

Why should educational institutions be investing in and supporting science diplomacy? 

P. Dufour: Investing in science diplomacy is a bargain for universities. Besides strengthening international cooperation and attracting top talent, science diplomacy invigorates the entire research ecosystem and inspires the next generation of researchers. 

In a nutshell, what would be an effective science diplomacy strategy for the University of Ottawa? 

P. Dufour: The University of Ottawa could use the lack of a national strategy to its advantage by forging strong partnerships, launching collaborative endeavours and promoting multidisciplinary research. In so doing, it would position itself as a leader in the field and help propel science diplomacy at the national level. Let me say here that science diplomacy should not be approached as an attempt to impose specific policies, since scientific demand needs to be the foundation for effective diplomacy in that regard. 

Are you aware of any science diplomacy initiatives in which the University of Ottawa is currently involved, and what their outcomes are? 

P. Dufour: The Bromley Memorial Event, sponsored by the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy and the George Washington University’s Institute for International Science and Technology Policy, is an excellent example of uOttawa’s engagement in this field for nearly two decades. This initiative, in honour of the late eminent nuclear physicist Allan Bromley from Ottawa, gives researchers the opportunity to engage with global science and technology leaders. 

How do you see the role of embassies and educational institutions in promoting science diplomacy? 

P. Dufour: Embassies are the most tangible representation of diplomatic relations. They are where international bonds are forged. So embassies are obviously best placed to facilitate relations among scientists, governments and other stakeholders—from both sides of the table. Educational institutions on the other hand are the flagbearers of the science diplomacy process. Through programs such as research chairs, they can promote their scientific discoveries around the world. 

Panelist perspectives

As researchers engaged in science diplomacy, can you describe your experience for your colleagues who would like to follow in your footsteps? 

Pascal Griset: As a specialist in contemporary history, I approach science diplomacy from the perspective that applied history allows us to break down the present and look to the future with greater clarity. I am reminded of the importance of multidisciplinarity every time I engage with colleagues working in the hard sciences. However, as we move towards our common goals, it is important that each field retain its unique character. 

Stéphanie Balme: My stint at the Embassy of France in Beijing was a real eye-opener for me in my career as a researcher in science diplomacy. I saw for myself the need for an “upstream” approach, considering the strategic void on the French side and China’s much more developed policy position. Since then, I have been actively engaged in training the next generation in that field of research. 

Patrick Fafard: These past few years, my laboratory has been studying anti-microbial resistance, clearly an issue of global interest if we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our discussions with climate science colleagues have revealed that we were not the only ones concerned about the lack of a clear framework for science diplomacy. This led to interdisciplinary partnerships with colleagues in the social sciences and medicine, with a view to posing relevant shared questions and achieving a broader social impact. 

The call for nominations for the University of Ottawa/Embassy of France Research Chair in Science Diplomacy is now open.