Stakeholder’s voices #6: A conversation with the Central European Initiative

For this stakeholder’s voice, we contacted Nina Kodelja, Deputy Secretary General, and Alessandro Lombardo, Senior Executive Officer of the Central European Initiative (CEI).

The CEI is the first intergovernmental forum for regional cooperation ever established in Europe, whose origins date back to 1989. It is committed to supporting European integration and sustainable development through cooperation between and among its 17 Member States – Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Serbia and Ukraine – and with the European Union, international and regional organizations as well as with other public or private institutions and non-governmental organizations.

In order to attain its institutional mission, ministerial meetings are frequently organized, including gatherings of ministers responsible for science and research, and as such is a crucial platform for political dialogue.

The CEI approaches regional cooperation through a combination of multilateral diplomacy, policy dialogue, and result-oriented activities, both funding small-scale actions proposed by stakeholders in its Member States and implementing cross-border/transnational projects funded by third parties, primary the EU. Everyday activities are handled by the CEI-Executive Secretariat in Trieste, including the administration of funds and the design and implementation of projects. The rotating Presidency of the CEI is currently held by Montenegro.

In this interview, Nina and Alessandro elaborate on science diplomacy in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, and how CEI operates in that interface.

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Could you please introduce yourself and the CEI?

Nina: I started my assignment at the Central European Initiative – Executive Secretariat as CEI Deputy Secretary General at the beginning of 2019, coming from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia where I gained diplomatic experience in various policy areas and many aspects of EU affairs in general. I served in Slovene embassies abroad, namely in Rome and Madrid.

I worked for the European External Action Service after that for several years, which proved to be a very rewarding experience, as it entailed working with fellow colleagues from other EU Member States as well as EU Institutions in shaping EU’s foreign policy.

Before my present assignment as CEI Deputy Secretary General, I was heading the Department for General and Institutional EU Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia, following key EU institutional issues such as preparation of European Councils, Brexit, negotiations of the next EU’s multiannual financial framework etc. And before this experience, I was Head of the Department for Emerging Challenges and Threats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia, following emerging global issues and threats such as climate change, terrorism and radicalization, and also science diplomacy, etc. My academic background is in the field of international affairs and diplomacy.

Alessandro: My academic background is also in the field of international affairs and diplomacy and I joined the CEI Executive Secretariat in 2006. Currently, I am co-coordinating the Unit for EU Projects, which is managing the participation of the CEI Executive Secretariat in projects financed by various EU programmes, mainly Interreg and Horizon 2020. In parallel, I am the focal point on scientific cooperation and science diplomacy. In this regard, I follow all science-related activities promoted along our different working streams. Within the CEI intergovernmental dimension, I collaborate with the respective Presidency on the organization of ministerial conferences on science, education, and research. At the project level, I monitor the implementation of small-scale projects and activities financed by the CEI Cooperation Fund and implemented by stakeholders in our Member States. At the same time, I am tasked with direct implementation duties when the CEI Executive Secretariat is joining transnational EU partnerships.

Would you consider yourself a “science diplomat”?

Nina: Yes! I am a career diplomat, and I believe that science diplomacy is an important part of my profession. Together with other areas, such as public diplomacy, including cultural diplomacy, or economic diplomacy, it appears to be a more recent feature of diplomacy, which maintains the “raison d’être” of its mission, but witnesses the enlarging scope of a diplomat’s activities, to adapt to the ever faster-changing world and societies.

Alessandro: Honestly not. I consider myself an officer of an intergovernmental organization promoting science diplomacy, its use, and practices within the broad part of Europe covered by the CEI membership. Thus, a supporter of science diplomacy, rather than a science diplomat.

What is your shortest possible definition of science diplomacy?

Alessandro: This is a difficult question, even tricky! It is certainly not easy to find a broadly accepted short definition of “science diplomacy”, also considering the number and diversity of stakeholders involved in this interdisciplinary sector. There is a risk of overstretching this concept to include as many actions and actors as possible, eventually resulting in definitions that sound slightly unfocused, at least to me.

My personal vision, surely influenced by my background and work experience, is that the concept of science diplomacy becomes too diluted if we don’t put a strong emphasis on the role of governments as the main players in the realm of foreign policy, and consequently of diplomats as key actors for its implementation. In this perspective, science diplomacy is a form of public diplomacy, tightly interlinked with Joseph Nye’s conceptualization of “soft power”. Of course, this may limit the playground but, in my opinion, it better outlines the basic features of this concept.

Along these lines, the short definition I am better in tune with is the one proposed by Pierre-Bruno Ruffini, who refers to science diplomacy as “all practices in which actions of researchers and of diplomats interact”.

Fostering sustainable development in CEI countries is one of your core missions, which revolve around three objectives: fostering adaptation to climate change, promoting sustainable energy and energy efficiency, and preserving natural capital, especially biodiversity. In your opinion, how can science diplomacy help foster those objectives in CEI Member States?

Nina: Indeed, sustainable development in CEI countries is one of our core missions. We have been trying to enhance the role of CEI and its member countries at the United-Nations (UN), also given the fact that CEI holds observer status at the UN General Assembly, with activities geared towards the attainment of Agenda 2030 and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs. This is also in line with the other main mission of CEI, European integration, as it follows the new approach to sustainability by the EU, in particular with the European Green Deal, which connects environmental, social, and economic objectives.

CEI recently released a report focusing on science diplomacy. For how long has science diplomacy been on the agenda of the CEI? Would you say that CEI has been focusing on science diplomacy from the start, even implicitly?

Alessandro: Scientific cooperation is mentioned as a key topic already in the Joint Declaration establishing the first nucleus of the CEI. This was back in 1989, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since then, the Organisation has traditionally supported international science cooperation within its portfolio. On such a basis, although implicitly, science diplomacy has always been high on CEI’s agenda. A practical example in this regard was the diplomatic support provided by the CEI, in the context of past ministerial conferences on science and research, to the negotiating phase that preceded the establishment of the Central European Research Infrastructure Consortium, the so-called CERIC.

Over the last few years, the expression “science diplomacy” has become more frequent in the CEI vocabulary. Yet, it was in 2019, during the Italian CEI Presidency, that science diplomacy has become a more explicit priority. In particular, the “Trieste Declaration on Science”, unanimously adopted by the ministers in charge of science and research on 13 December 2019, makes several references to science diplomacy, with an encouragement to explore this concept further, “including through the implementation of training, capacity building actions, research activities, and networking”. We followed up on this, and, as the first step, we attempted to outline the state and prospects of science diplomacy in our region through the elaboration of the report “Science Diplomacy in CEI Member States”.

This report was one of the first attempts to conduct an empirical analysis of science diplomacy in that region. What are the highlights of the report?

Alessandro: We developed our conclusions together with the University of Trieste, in particular Dr. Simone Arnaldi, from the Department of Social and Political Sciences, who is the main author of this report which was funded by Region Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the context of its broader support to internationalization of research. Our main goal was to turn the spotlight on countries that seemed less involved in the growing debate on science diplomacy at a global level. Recent socio-political research on science diplomacy has focused mainly on leading global powers, the US and China, or advanced economies, such as France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, or the UK, while smaller, post-socialist economies in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe have received only limited attention. The report proved that there is a widespread interest of CEI Member States in the topic of science diplomacy, as well as in building stronger institutional capacities in this field, particularly through training activities.

A second aspect I would like to highlight is methodological: the report attempted to introduce a different perspective in the study of science diplomacy through the application of Social Network Analysis (SNA). This allowed outlining a clearer picture of the science diplomacy landscape across the CEI area by focusing not only on the specific features at the national level, i.e. how the respective ministers of foreign affairs approach science diplomacy in practical terms but also on countries’ relations, positions and connections within the CEI network.

Nina: I would like to stress that the report represents a preliminary contribution, functional to creating a common understanding and knowledge base for further reflections on cooperation in this area. And this is very much in line with the focus and political endorsement given to science diplomacy in the mentioned “Trieste Declaration on Science”.

One of the conclusions of the report outlined the importance of developing training opportunities for scientists and diplomats alike. In recent years, training opportunities have started to emerge such as the InsSciDE summer school or the S4D4C European science diplomacy online course. Yet, the demand for training is still growing. From your point of view, what kind of training still ought to be developed?

Alessandro: I am still a little cautious about using the expression “science diplomat” referring to a specific profession or job profile. On the contrary, I do believe that developing skills in this field will be more and more essential in the next future for several categories of professionals: certainly, scientists and diplomats, but also managers of research infrastructures, academic personnel, ministerial officers dealing with the internationalization of research, civil servants working for international organizations, to name but a few.

Public and private institutions – either at local, regional, national, or international level – will need to equip their teams with staff having expertise in science diplomacy. Therefore, the fact that training opportunities are increasing, also thanks to projects like S4D4C and InsSciDE, is certainly positive. In this regard, I think that one of the main challenges is to ensure a balanced participation of scientists and diplomats, since any training on science diplomacy, to be effective, shall result in improved interaction between these two, apparently distant, communities.

Science diplomacy, as an interdisciplinary field, is also an excellent tool to grasp a better understanding of events and scenarios at the interface between science and international relations. Considering this, I think that – in addition to scientists and diplomats – dedicated training paths should target university students, both those studying international relations and those enrolled in S&T-related courses.

 At CEI, you often offer workshops and training opportunities to foster regional integration. Which kind of instruments do you think are the most powerful to facilitate science diplomacy practices? Is the CEI currently planning to develop more activities specifically focused on science diplomacy?

Nina: Based on CEI’s longstanding support to scientific cooperation, we will continue to play our role as a forum for facilitating dialogue between the key actors involved in science diplomacy, while also building stronger relations with EU institutions, UN, and other science – and in particular science diplomacy – related multilateral fora.

Traditional activities such as workshops and training will continue to be at the centre of our work. Moreover, the CEI Executive Secretariat will maintain its support to regional initiatives aimed at the whole or at a part of the CEI region, such as the project of developing an international research infrastructure in the Western Balkans, “South East European International Institute for Sustainable Technologies”, also called SEEIIST. This is also a particular priority of Montenegro, the current Presidency of CEI.This follows the “tradition” of promoting initiatives that have a regional impact, such as the above mentioned CERIC or the support to ESOF, the bi-annual European Science Open Forum. This event is taking place in Trieste and virtually this September including discussions on science diplomacy. We will also consolidate the involvement of the CEI Executive Secretariat in partnerships of EU projects, in particular in Horizon 2020 and in the future Horizon Europe and the goal to promote the participation of CEI non-EU Member States in these actions.

Alessandro: We definitely intend to keep focusing on science diplomacy, and to make our contribution to the global offer of training and capacity building activities in this field. This does not necessarily mean to launch an additional training course. In order to avoid any risk of duplication, we would rather support the extension of existing opportunities to the communities of scientists and diplomats of our Member States and keep advocating for the involvement of this broad portion of Europe in the global discourse on science diplomacy.

Furthermore, we will consider the idea to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and transfer of best practices in science diplomacy within a network of experts to be identified in our Member States. In particular, we would like to address the link between the implementation of the UN Agenda 2030 and the role that science diplomacy can play therein. Finally, we will attempt to capitalize on the findings and inputs of the mentioned report “Science Diplomacy in CEI Member States”, by promoting further socio-political research on the topic of science diplomacy.

Science diplomacy has many stakeholders, which can form powerful networks to foster science diplomacy practices. Which actors do you identify as crucially important in the SD interface?

Nina: In the times when multilateralism seems to be “under pressure” for many reasons, I think we should stress the importance of regional organizations such as CEI, as a well-established platform for discussing common challenges and opportunities, even more so if this policy dialogue is accompanied, as in the case of CEI, with result-oriented activities.

I believe that regional cooperation is a strong enabler of science diplomacy since it provides the appropriate framework where partnerships and collaborative science-policy interfaces can be mobilized. As pointed out by Alessandro, we are reflecting on more structured networking opportunities for experts on science diplomacy within the CEI, aimed at promoting synergies between the ministries of foreign affairs and the ministries in charge of science and research. Of course, as an intergovernmental body, our first thought goes towards the governmental structures of our Member States. Along these lines, I wish to refer to a very positive experience on a similar type of activity with the ongoing work of the Joint CEI-WHO Task Force, dedicated to dialogue among CEI Member States health representatives on the topic of COVID-19.

Yet, we are aware that, considering the interdisciplinary nature of science diplomacy, other players should be involved to establish multi-stakeholders platforms going beyond the intergovernmental dimension.

Another important point in this regard is the connection between the national and the sub-national level in the formulation of effective science diplomacy. A best practice example can be found in the Region Friuli Venezia Giulia, whose administration signed a three-party agreement with two Italian ministries (ministry of foreign affairs and ministry of university and research) for the valorization and internationalization of the regional science and innovation system. This is an interesting case of coordination between the central and the regional level towards coherent science diplomacy, a networking model that can be of inspiration for our Member States.


For the website-category “stakeholder’s voices”, S4D4C invites selected experts in the field of science diplomacy and foreign policy to share their insights and knowledge with our readers. The interviews published here resemble the “researcher’s voices” where we feature S4D4C team-members and their views on science diplomacy and the project. With the “stakeholder’s voices” we also show the views of experts who are not directly involved in the project.

  • 1st stakeholder’s voice, June 2019: Jan-Marco Müller from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. You can find it HERE.
  • 2nd stakeholder’s voice, March 2020: Julia MacKenzie, Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS. You can read it HERE.
  • 3rd stakeholder’s voice, April 2020: Chagun Basha, DST – Centre for Policy Research at Indian Institute for Science. You can read it HERE.
  • 4th stakeholder’s voice, June 2020: Alexander Sokolov, Moscow Higher School of Economics. You can read it HERE.
  • 5th stakeholder’s voice, July 2020: Peggy Hamburg and Krishan Lal, co-chairs of the InterAcademy Partnership. You can read it HERE.
S4D4C Team

Posted by S4D4C Team