Science Diplomacy: empirical observations and conceptual frameworks

While the activities subsumed under it have a long-standing history, science diplomacy is still relatively new; not only as an object of study but also as a domain to be purposefully governed (Berkman 2019; Müller and Bona 2018; Rüffin 2020; Rungius and Flink 2020). Labelling activities aimed at facilitating transboundary knowledge flows as ‘science diplomacy’ also represents a performative, rhetorical act of agenda-setting for the foreign policy arena (Flink 2020b; Penca 2018; Walker 2015). It summarizes formerly more disparate activities under one heading and foregrounds them as potentially valuable diplomatic activities in a globalizing, networked world, in which knowledge and knowledge creation become more and more important for political, economic, social and environmental success. Typical examples of the application of the concept in scientific literature include EU integration (López de San Román and Schunz 2018; Rüffin 2020; Trobbiani and Hatenboer 2018), (historical) international relations (Krasnyak 2020; Millwood 2020; Wilder et al. 2020) as well as environmental issues (Özkaragöz Doğan, Uygun, and Akçomak 2020; Robinson 2020; Ruffini 2018).

In any case, science diplomacy involves collaboration between partially existing, partially new stakeholders working in the STI community, the diplomacy community and the policy community on different levels in the multi-level spectrum of decision making (Melchor 2020; Moomaw 2018). In the wake of a shift from the traditional shape of ‘club diplomacy’ to a more networked form (Cooper, Heine, and Thakur 2013; Hocking 2016), which runs parallel to the shift from government to governance (Rhodes 2007), science diplomacy often involves a broader range of stakeholders from sub-national or non-governmental organizations. This has already led to institutionalized, dedicated governmental science diplomacy networks in, for example, the United States, United Kingdom, France or Switzerland (Flink and Rüffin 2019; Flink and Schreiterer 2010). Other stakeholders, such as the EU with its dedicated European External Action Service or other EU member states, are also keen on using science diplomacy for foreign policy objectives.

In some cases, variants are developed which focus more broadly on economic diplomacy or on innovation diplomacy which, in turn, can be located on the intersection of economic diplomacy and science diplomacy. At foreign mission posts these ‘types’ of diplomacy lead to a mix of diplomats from traditional international relations, economic and innovation diplomacy and other departmental ‘niche’ diplomacies (Van Genderen and Rood 2011). While niche diplomacies such as science diplomacy, innovation diplomacy or economic diplomacy are by no means clearly demarcated diplomatic domains, science diplomacy may ultimately function as an overarching diplomacy concept integrating many if not all conceivable niche diplomacies given their specialized knowledge component.

As said before, its timeliness and popularity has not yet led to a stable definition of the concept (cf. Flink and Rüffin 2019; Kaltofen and Acuto 2018). On the one hand, this leads to confusion and unclarity as to what it may mean and may make some actors question the use, convenience and necessity of the concept. On the other hand, an unstable container or ‘boundary’ concept may cater to the needs and interests of many actors stating to be involved in science diplomacy (Kaltofen and Acuto 2018). Depending on the issue and context at hand, actors can opt in or out of science diplomacy.

Nevertheless, over the years, several conceptual frameworks for science diplomacy have been suggested. In the following, we give a birds eye view of a few of these. Four views will be presented here owing to their relevance for the field and their diverging nature. First, and frequently heard from practitioners, is a definition proposed in 2010 by the Royal Society (The Royal Society 2010). It takes a procedural orientation and defines science diplomacy as three processes: science in diplomacy, diplomacy for science and science for diplomacy. As such, activities can be called ‘science diplomacy’, if they somehow improve the workings of diplomacy based on scientific evidence (i.e. “evidence-based diplomacy”); facilitate the collaboration or exchange of scientists across borders by supporting researcher mobility or by providing simple things such as meeting facilities; or influence the relations between countries through indirect processes of knowledge exchange or collaboration between scientists internationally, with relevant scientific outcomes as a result. These three categories resonate with practitioners’ understanding of the concept to varying degrees. Second, another contribution defined “a more utilitarian framing of science diplomacy” as three motivation orientations (Gluckman et al. 2017). It differentiates between actions motivated by furthering (a) a single country’s interests, (b) bilateral interests, and (c) global interests. Third, a new study reconstructed the concept as a materialization of actors’ interpretative schemas and shared assumptions about the social world they constantly need to make sense of (Rungius and Flink 2020). This means that the actors need to collaborate in a regular manner, whereby science diplomacy is presented as a panacea against looming threats and grand challenges in a world facing deterioration. Fourth, Ruffini (2020) presents science diplomacy to function in the two dialectical rationales of collaboration and competition.

Conceptually speaking, an approach developed from a meta-governance perspective is not concerned with the substantive content of governance in a certain field as the above conceptual frameworks are – e.g. by listing specific actors, governance structures, institutions and outputs related to that field -, but with the problem of how the processes of governing need to be designed to make the process and its outcome constructive and productive. Of course, a basic understanding of what we talk about when we mention the term ‘science diplomacy’ is still required. For the time being, we follow Rungius and Flink (2020), who define it as all kinds of actions bridging science and foreign policy. Nevertheless, a governance framework as we are presenting should start with a view on what it is that needs to be governed. This view on science diplomacy as a governance domain can be found in the Governance Practice for Science Diplomacy section below.



Laure-Anne Plumhans

Posted by Laure-Anne Plumhans