Pauline Ravinet: For a more diverse science diplomacy

For this new researchers’ voice, S4D4C team member Pauline Ravinet is answering our questions. Pauline is Assistant Professor of Political Science at CERAPS and is the Vice President for European Affairs at the University of Lille.

She is also a Member of the expert committee of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie. In the S4D4C consortium, Pauline most notably contributed to the S4D4C case study ‘The science and diplomacy of global challenges: Food security in EU-Africa relations’. She also led the Africa session in our webinar on the regional approaches on science diplomacy.

In this researcher’s voice, she talks to us about diversity in science diplomacy, in terms of nationalities, languages, institutions and disciplines, and why it is so instrumental to address global challenges.


First of all, what is for you science diplomacy? How does it transpire in your professional activities?

 SD is about having science in diplomacy, working together to address global challenges. Neither the states nor the market alone can address global challenges. We need to include knowledge, by this I mean that we need to include not only researchers’ findings but also researchers as actors and their institutions. Only then we will have a chance to address global challenges.

My professional activities are linked to SD in two ways. First of all, as a researcher in political science, I focus part of my academic work on SD. Secondly, I also act as a SD professional in my role of vice president for European Affairs of the University of Lille. Both positions feed into each other. My research on science diplomacy influences the way I approach my VP position and the other way around: being involved directly in SD practices influences my research. I always keep in mind what I have learned ‘in the field’ as an SD practitioner.

In the S4D4C webinar on regional approaches, you moderated the Africa session. Can we talk of a regional approach for the whole continent? Can you link it to the findings of your case study on food security?

Together with the case on food security, some of my previous research is helpful to consider when answering your question. I conducted research on regionalism and knowledge policies, and I worked together with Dr. Meng-Hsuan (NTU Singapore) on a project on comparative regionalism in Higher Education (see additional references below). We looked at the regional schemes of cooperation between HE institutions in Europe and in South-East Asia. What appeared to us, especially when looking at previous literature on the subject, is that we, Europeans, tend to make the EU the blueprint for regional cooperation when looking at any other forms of regional cooperation. This is obviously misleading, we tend to consider that the EU is a regional model, and thus approach other regionalism processes from the prism of institutionalisation. The result is that we find that other efforts towards regionalism are less developed in terms of institutionalisation. This is not really a good way to approach this. This is not good in analytical terms because only looking at the degree of institutionalisation blinds us to other types of cooperation taking place. This is also problematic in political terms, when you approach non-European actors emphasising that their cooperation is ‘less’, it is not a great starting point to establish dialogue.

It is a bit the same with the question of regional approaches in SD. Our understanding of what constitutes a SD approach is shaped by our knowledge and experience of European SD. The case of Africa is then placed at the other end of the continuum in terms of institutionalisation of SD. Yet, it does not mean that SD practices are not taking place in Africa. There is a great diversity of SD initiatives whether at the national level (South Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia) or at the organisation’s level (science academies). There is a constellation of projects that have to do with SD, but it is hard to call this a “regional” approach if we define it in the European sense: a coordinated and institutionalised regional policy setting.

Africa is so important as a continent to address global challenges, it is absolutely necessary for Africa to be an active part of the discussions. You cannot do without African partners. That explains the importance given to S&T cooperation within EU-Africa partnerships. We often see the use of SD practices and arguments in the cooperation of the EU with Africa, but we should also look for a more indigenously driven SD in Africa. During the webinar, it was very clear that talking of a regional approach for Africa is very tricky: Africa is not a monolithic bloc, it is extremely diverse and this is especially true for scientific cooperation.

To link this with the case study on food security I conducted with Rafael Cos and Mitchell Young, we found much evidence of politically strong and committed partnerships between the EU and Africa in relations to food security. One of our main findings was that there was an asymmetrical awareness between scientists and diplomats. Scientists and science policy actors have in general a greater understanding of the foreign policy potential of their research. That was not (or much less) the case for diplomats, which mentionned global challenges, but did not highlight the crucial connection between science and diplomacy in their work. A big question for advocates of science diplomacy is to ask how can we make it more “glamorous” to diplomats?

Regional approaches are multiple in the world of science diplomacy, so are languages used to practice SD. While English is often used in SD forums, the community also uses German, French, Spanish, etc.  From your perspective, should science diplomacy forums also be open to other commonly spoken languages?

There is often the assumption that languages are neutral, especially in scientific fields. So many speeches in SD start with the statement that “Science is the universal language”, but is it really? Very often we talk about a science that is done in English, with international debates taking place in English.

Very often SD forums are also held in English, but is SD really only an English speaking field? This would clash with the values promoted by SD of diversity and being open to multiple stakeholders and regions. If we want to engage more actors within the SD community, to focus on only one language is limiting. It limits us in terms of reach but also in terms of content. The vector of science is language, and the use of one language or the other will lead to different outcomes in terms of wording, style but also structure. This is something that is interesting – it leads to more diversity and that should be also included in our approach to SD.

French has been widely used in diplomatic and scientific circles and is still spoken in many former French colonies as a result of the French strategy to promote the French language. The term ‘Francophonie’ is often used to promote linguistic and cultural connection between France and other French speaking countries. How has this concept evolved from the claim of French universalism towards a vision of cultural – and scientific – exchange?

Here we have to make a difference between France’s global strategy and the Francophonie. The Francophonie is not about France, it is about the French language. France does not own the French language, it is a common good. The Francophonie belongs to French speaking countries, actors and institutions around the world. France is involved in the Francophonie, but it is not in itself the Francophonie.

This links back to the previous question on the languages of science. The real issue is about defending different ways of producing and transmitting knowledge in different languages. This notion of a pluralistic globalisation and transnational cooperation to address global challenges is very important.

The AUF is a network of universities and research centres around the world which use the French language. Can the AUF be called a science diplomacy organisation and if yes, why ?

The AUF network is not well known but it is actually the biggest international university network in the world in terms of number of members – more than 1000 universities! It means that we have a great diversity of nationalities in the network. The French speaking dimension is in itself very diverse: some universities have French as their main working language, but many others are connected to the French language through specific programmes taught in French or are involved with French speaking institutions. The AUF uses French as the thread for transnational cooperation between universities. The network involves a lot of institutions from the ‘Global South’. We know that for addressing global challenges the question of cooperation and knowledge cooperation between North and South is key.

One of the biggest challenges is then to structure the cooperation between such diverse partners. Science diplomacy is thus very important for the AUF as its principles help structuring the cooperation and we see it as creating a greater focus on universities having a crucial role in addressing Global Challenges. The AUF has made tremendous efforts to reinvent universities international cooperation and to articulate potential cooperation between its members for research around global challenges such as the SDGs.

This is why the Western Europe section of the AUF has also developed a taskforce on SD. It aims to develop concepts and tools for an AUF SD approach. The group is in itself very diverse, both in terms and nationality and background, we have a Romanian philosopher, a Belgian historian, a Tunisian in management studies, a Québécois diplomat, a Lebanese expert in Higher education… In this task we also get the extremely valuable help of Pierre-Bruno Ruffini, a prominent researcher in science diplomacy (from our sister project InsSciDE), and a former science diplomat himself.

In your professional career, you have been involved in the promotion of higher education regionally and internationally. For you, what is the role of higher education institutions in science diplomacy- why are they sometimes overlooked in the SD discourse?

As a researcher and citizen, I believe in the crucial role of knowledge in our societies and of universities. Universities are institutions that have this specificity of being autonomous from any other power be it the state or the market, and of strongly articulating innovative research and education training. All this in a context of globalisation of Higher Education, makes Higher Education institutions key stakeholders of science diplomacy. However, science diplomacy describes a science that omits to include students and focuses rather on “pure” scientists who would not teach or work with students. Most institutions that are thought of when talking of SD are academies or research centres, not universities.

This vision of science is incomplete and it is certainly not my definition of science. HE institutions are important for several reasons. First, because of their interdisciplinarity potential: there are no better places than universities to find interdisciplinarity which is a value advocated by SD. Second, awareness about SD can be achieved by universities whom are directly in contact with the next generation of professionals. And lastly, universities matters as philosophical institutions. SD is sometimes criticized as being value blind in the way it approaches science. Universities are rooted in values of independence of knowledge and academic freedom.

To omit the role of HE institutions is also to leave out thousands of actors which are taking part in science and knowledge diplomacy everyday. For instance, my role as a VP of European affairs is directly related to SD, as I contribute to the development of diplomatic activities between universities, and participate in actors networks promoting universities and knowledge in European internal and external policies.

This question has been tackled in different S4D4C activities in the last years. We can for instance mention the debates at Re:Publica Forum on the education – science diplomacy nexus. The panel on SD that Mitchell Young and I co-organised at the ICPP 2019 in Montreal, was also great moment of discussion on the perimeter of science / knowledge diplomacy. Our colleague Diane Stone (from our sister project EL-CSID) who is well known for her work on global public policies and transnational networks, presented that day an important paper on higher education and diplomacy, showing us that more and more universities play a role in science diplomacy. (,see: Diane Stone (2021) ‘Higher Education Diplomacy’, A Research Presentation in the European Governance and Politics Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, 27th January 2021).

A session at S4D4C final networking meeting will also be dedicated to this topic. This will be a great opportunity to identify what Higher education research can contribute to science diplomacy debates, as well as to discuss the value of involving Higher education actors in the building of a global science diplomacy community.

In the science diplomacy discourse, the focus is often set on the fields of  Science Technology Engineering and Mathemetics (STEM)  and much less on fields from the social sciences and humanities (SSH). Why are those fields in your opinion particularly relevant when talking about and practicing science diplomacy?

In this new way to think about science with the discourse of Global Challenges, there is a big paradox: the narrative on GC is shaped by a social science perspective, yet the SD conceptualization of science often refers to STEM studies.

It goes together with the systematic underfunding of SSH. The discourse that we hear is that  ‘SSH are so important, since they are spread all over the different fields we cannot imagine any project that does not involve SSH’. Thus, we find SSH elements in many projects but rarely are funds allocated to SSH matters fully. The argument for the importance of interdisciplinarity only stands true if we have strong disciplines in the first place. Social science’s input should not be limited to ethics and acceptability, which is often the role of the token social scientist in a project. SD needs to include more SSH and to defend their importance and be vigilant on the current discourse.

What is the strength of the S4D4C project for you?

S4D4C has been able to truly cross-boundaries: our members are from different nationalities and scientific backgrounds. We each brought a different conception of science to the table, different epistemologies and eventually SD approaches. For example, some work more on public policy, others are specialized in international relations, science and technologies studies or social innovation and evidence-based policies. This cocktail of approaches is the strength of the project.


Additional References

CHOU, M-H., RAVINET, P., 2016, ‘The emergent terrains of “higher education regionalism”: How and why higher education is an interesting case for comparative regionalism’, European Journal of Higher Education 6(3): 271-287.

CHOU, M-H., RAVINET, P., 2017, ‘Higher education regionalism in Europe and Southeast Asia: Comparing policy ideas’, Policy and Society 36(1): 153-159.


S4D4C Team

Posted by S4D4C Team