In “The Limits of Science Diplomacy,” SciDev.net Director David Dickson argues that scientific collaboration can achieve only very limited diplomatic victories. A conference hosted by the Royal Society in London earlier this month, entitled “New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy” (agenda), seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion.
But this view of science diplomacy is overly pessimistic. It sets unrealistically high expectations such dialogue could never hope to achieve. Science diplomacy is not meant to solve all aspects of conflicts or distrustful relationships, so setting such a high bar is a bit of a straw man. Science, as well as dialogue on the management of shared natural resources, remains an under-utilized and under-studied tool for trust-building, so it is premature to declare it a failure before we have sufficient evidence for evaluation.
Veterans of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and other Cold War-era scientific dialogues might suggest we are neglecting some rich experiences from this era. It bears remembering that Pugwash was awarded the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize (and current U.S. Science Adviser John Holdren delivered the acceptance speech as then executive director of Pugwash).
A distinct but related arena for further policy attempts and research inquiries is environmental peacebuilding, where mutual interdependence around natural resources provides pathways for dialogue in the midst of conflict. The establishment of the Cordillera del Condor Transboundary Protected Area between Ecuador and Peru was a result of integrating joint environmental management structures in the 1998 peace agreement that ended a long-festering border conflict. Negotiation over shared resources, such as water, can be a diplomatic lifeline for otherwise-hostile countries, such as Israel and Jordan, which held secret “picnic table” talks to manage the Jordan River while they were officially at war. And the U.S. military has successfully uses environmental cooperation to engage both friends and adversaries.
Collaboration on scientific and environmental issues won’t solve all our problems. And defining and identifying success remains a fundamental challenge when success is the absence of something (conflict). But let’s not retreat to the common church-and-state division where scientists fear being “contaminated” by participating in policy-relevant dialogues. And let’s certainly not declare science diplomacy a failure—and stop trying to make it a success—based on unrealistic expectations for the benefits such efforts might produce.