Final Researcher’s voice: An interview with the project coordinator Elke Dall

Elke is senior researcher and project manager at the Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI), in Vienna, Austria. She has been the project coordinator of the S4D4C project since the beginning of 2019. Her background is in international science, technology and innovation cooperation with a geographical focus of the Western Balkans, but she has also experience working to analyze and increase science cooperation with entities in Asia, Latin America and Africa during her career. In this last researcher’s voice, she is answering questions posed by Laure-Anne Plumhans on the specificities and impact of the S4D4C project, what has been learned along the way and what is coming up next.

At the beginning of a researcher’s voice, we traditionally ask the interviewees to define what science diplomacy means for them. Elke, you already gave us a definition in a past article. Would you say that your understanding of science diplomacy has changed due to the project?

It certainly did and at the same time even after the years in S4D4C, we agree still that it is a very fluid concept and that it is tricky in particular to identify the border between “international STI cooperation” and “science diplomacy”. My position here is that science diplomacy is a lens to look at practices, as we outlined in one of our reports, it is an interaction space. Eventually, the same action may be described as science diplomacy when looked at from that angle but we might not see it as such when approaching a practice from another angle. Maybe to look at it like works of art: Not every scribble on canvas is a work of art but if we put the paintings in a museum they are regarded as such. The context matters. Cooperation in research and innovation is always embedded in the broader geopolitical context and there are positive as well as negative feedback loops between the two spheres of science and international relations. Being aware of those, establishing, understanding and improving the boundaries and interfaces will help us to address global challenges better. And I really learnt to appreciate the benefits of involving diplomats more explicitly.

What are the achievements of the project that you are the proudest of and why?

Oh, there are many. I am proud of each of us and how we worked together as a team; and I am proud of every positive feedback that we received on our work, via personal communication or social media.

But there are a few specific things that I dare to highlight: The 1-week event attended by more than 750 people was the biggest event I was ever involved in and it was a great experience how we pushed each other to make it bigger and better, with addressing highest-level speakers, the EU Commissioner, ministers, a Nobel-Prize winner, etc. and with adding sessions that truly mobilized the community. Yet, it’s only the most recent activity of a successful outreach strategy really forming a community. So, having formed this group and also having managed to launch a viable sustainability strategy with the “European Union Science Diplomacy Alliance” does make me proud as a coordinator. I do think that with our theoretical, empirical and practical work we truly added value to the discussions. And we spread our approach via the open online course quite broadly.

What would you have done differently if you could have?

I believe the case study work deserved more time and our process was probably in some way a bit over-organized with comparing different national approaches within the cases. We also could have had a few more meetings to discuss the transversal analysis. But exactly at that time, COVID-19 forced us to cancel a meeting in March 2020. In any case, we managed to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic and turn it into a positive outcome in terms of shedding light on the science diplomacy aspects of addressing COVID-19.

In a previous article, you mentioned that your ambition for S4D4C was to “make an impact on the political landscape, for example, to join the discussion how science diplomacy will be addressed in the upcoming Horizon Europe programme”. What is your assessment today of the project impact on the political landscape?

A difficult question. I believe that we had excellent cooperation with the Strategic Forum on International Cooperation (SFIC) and could participate in that discussion and through our partnership also address stakeholders who worked on the definition of Horizon Europe. We do unfortunately not see a dedicated call to research science diplomacy, but there are upcoming calls that we believe are very important e.g. on analyzing the STI ecosystem in China or to support cooperation with the Western Balkans – points that we also suggested. Also, DG RTD has included a pilot for a science diplomacy booster in its management plan; this is an instrument that we believe in and also promoted. The new strategy on the global approach is under development and to be launched soon. We hope that we could act as a voice to highlight the importance of cooperation for global challenges and for openness and to continue to be involved in the discussion under the umbrella of the Alliance. We also believe that open science, scientific freedom and research integrity, responsible research and innovation and gender equality are important values to promote within Europe and externally. In this sense, our conclusions in the “New Protocol for Science Diplomacy” hopefully influence the policy discussions further.

Can you elaborate on how you and your team have made sure that the legacy of the project lives on beyond April?

First of all, our results are fully available for the community to use. I believe that for a tax-payer funded project it is important to produce results that can be freely used and re-used. So we have, for example, explicitly put an open CC-BY license on most of our materials. Our results will remain available on the website for the next 4 years at least. But even more importantly, together with the other EU-funded projects related to science diplomacy, we managed to agree on a Letter of Intent to cooperate under the umbrella of the European Union Science Diplomacy Alliance, which I already mentioned. This gives us a framework to continue some of the activities, maintain the community and ensure that e.g. students of the online course will still receive answers in case they have problems. We will continue to monitor and, if possible, influence the European discussion on the topic.

What is your vision for the Alliance? What do you wish for it to achieve? 

I hope it to be a successful network that is open for others to join in, based on a win-win situation, cooperation and not competition, supporting those actors that work on science diplomacy as a subject. To share experiences, co-organize events and co-publish, to offer each other open doors. I also hope that it ensures that the topic stays on the agenda!

What is next for you after the project, will you still be involved with science diplomacy?

For sure! As mentioned, currently I prepare the inaugural meeting of the EU Science Diplomacy Alliance as a chair. I hand this position over to our colleagues from DLR in July 2021 and then CNRS, but I will remain part of the “trio of chairs” that we considered adequate for the coordination of the Alliance. We also work on analysing the national Austrian science diplomacy ecosystem and, last but not least, I am re-engaging with the work I did before 2016 with representatives in the Western Balkans, exchanging perspectives on responsible research and innovation (RRI) and STI policies. So, I am active at the Centre for Social Innovation in project acquisition and implementation related to fields of international cooperation, research policy and development in different areas – including science diplomacy!

And, wait … thanks, Laure-Anne, for preparing the interview and for contributing to the results of the project! Now let’s briefly turn the tables: what is next for you? What have you learnt? What were your highlights?

I will surely remember S4D4C as a foundational project in my career, I learned how a successful project should look like, how it should be managed and try to create impact. It was a real pleasure to interact with so many different actors and the very enthusiastic science diplomacy community. The highlight for me was really the conference, as you said before it was huge but also exhilarating and I felt privileged to be able to organize this event. I will take all those teachings with me in my future professional activities and will try to further connect science and policy to address global challenges in my new upcoming position as a PhD student in environmental sciences and policy.

Thank you, Elke, for this interview, and thanks to all our readers!

You can read all of our other researcher’s voice here.

In the picture: Elke and Laure-Anne with the two ZSI-trainees who helped in the organisation of the final project conference, Salomé and Maddalena.

Conference organising team at ZSI

From left to right: Salomé Kofler, Elke Dall, Maddalena Lamura and Laure-Anne Plumhans

S4D4C Team

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