The ‘Matters’ of Science Diplomacy: Geography

What matters in science diplomacy? That is the question that “The ‘Matters’ of Science Diplomacy: Transversal Analysis of the S4D4C Case Studies” aims to answer. To do so, the transversal analysis critically analyses the content of our nine case studies and identifies insights to foster and advance the understanding and the practice of science diplomacy. Each matter addresses a piece from the larger picture; together they form a mosaic depicting the complex and wide-ranging concept of science diplomacy. 

On this page, you find the matter ‘Geography’, co-authored by Lorenzo Melchor & Elke Dall.

Our S4D4C empirical case studies argue that geography continues to be influential regarding how nation states approach diplomacy in general and science diplomacy in particular. The concept of science diplomacy emphasizes factors such as scientific, technology and innovative capacity of a country when determining its overall power, next to economic power, competitiveness or education. As a consequence, the relevance of geography (or population, raw materials, etc.) as a defining factor in international affairs has declined in relation to these other elements (Nye, 1990). Yet geography does play a role. First, physical geography has an impact on the needs of any country and, by extension, geographical regions. Countries or regions may be located in mainland or coastal lands, upstream or downstream a river, in a flat or mountainous area, etc. which will determine in part their access to natural resources, such as water, food or fish, among others. Consequently, over time, these countries or regions have developed certain expertise to address their access to these resources or be part of related negotiations, which ultimately leads to technological innovation and economic growth. Second, human geography matters because of the extent of cultural, scientific, historical or bilateral relationships either facilitate or hamper collaborations, influence mobility patterns, and shape institutional arrangements. Taken altogether, we argue that geography matters in science diplomacy.

The S4D4C case study about water management directly exemplifies how the Netherlands, and to a lesser degree the UK, has positioned itself as a global expert in water management and water diplomacy due to purely physical geographical elements (Tomalová et al., 2020). The Netherlands is globally considered a reliable partner for water-related projects on all levels (sub-national, national, sub-global, global) largely due to its long cultural, scientific and technical experience with rising sea levels and floods. This expertise has propelled a complex public institutional framework with strong public policies related to water, leadership in coalitions of countries and diplomatic positions (the Water Envoy), and a richness in environmental consultancies, water technology companies, and non-profit organisations that operate transnationally. The case study also provided insight into how geographical locations may drive the use of water as well as related interactions between science and diplomacy in Central Asia.

The case study about food security (Ravinet et al., 2020), underlines how regions with poor physical geographical conditions, characterised by deprived-nutrient soils and/or severe droughts, have shaped priorities in the African Union and the European Union as part of their agriculture diplomacy. In doing so, a complex variety of policy and funding instruments have been deployed for international scientific and technological collaborations to find solutions for food security and availability issues in those regions. For instance, the Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA) funding initiative between countries in the North and South of the Mediterranean region fosters collaborative research surrounding issues related to water and food availability, agriculture, soil, etc.

The case study about fisheries management (Montana, 2020) also highlights how an element from physical geography such as easy access of a country to open waters, and therefore fish stocks or fisheries influences its science diplomacy actions. Again, this physical geographical factor shapes expertise and complex institutional frameworks: for instance, science advice mechanisms that operate among different scientific and political communities. These mechanisms prove to be important for a country when negotiating with others for fishing quotas and regulating fishing efforts (Montana, 2020).

Based on these case studies, physical geography elements such as being mainland or coastal land, flat or mountainous lands, access to rivers or sea, richness in natural resources, and other elements have led to societal pressure over centuries. The development of innovative technologies to tackle these geographical hurdles or make the most out of them has pushed growth and prosperity. Physical geography has an impact on the level of development, growth and prosperity of countries, partially shaping professional expertise in certain fields, as well as complex public institutional frameworks, and the development of private industry and technological competitiveness (Gallup et al., 1999; Henderson, et al., 2001; Hibbs and Olsson, 2004). Physical geography thus matters in science diplomacy because of the scientific and technological expertise developed as a direct consequence of physical geographical factors. Physical geography can be harnessed as a soft-power element of a country (in the international system), to position itself as the leading country in the field, promoting its own industry worldwide and fostering global alliances with countries with the same needs.

On the other hand, human geography understood as the series of cultural and historical linkages that brings together different countries and culturesgoes beyond physical geography. For instance, the Commonwealth brings together countries that are geographically distant apart, and so it happens with all the historical linkages between Spain and Portugal with Latin American. In our empirical case study analyses, this human geography dimension has played a particular role in the spreading pattern of infectious disease, which preferentially links countries with strong trade, business, and bilateral tourism relationships (Šlosarík et al., 2020). Additionally, research may foster scientific collaboration between physically distant countries, which may incorporate divisions of scientific labour advantageously. For example, scientists from Germany or the UK who are active in investigating Zika may provide appropriate technology to advance research, while Brazilian scientists would have the local knowledge and natural resources required to do the tests. Diplomatic approaches play a role in negotiations related to the exploitation and ownership of results stemming from these partnerships.

Lastly, analysing cooperation initiatives in a region with histories of conflict, the SESAME case study examining the joint research infrastructure the Middle East (Rungius, 2020) as well as the case focused on joint programming initiatives (Flink, 2020), show a further aspect of the influence of human geography and the challenges and limitations of ‘science for peace’. The purpose of building scientific linkages between different cultures was depicted in the ‘science for diplomacy’ dimension from the Royal Society-AAAS (2010) taxonomy. In these instances, human geography matters in the sense of poor quality relationships (conflicts driven by religion, politics, national borders, access to resources, etc.) influencing the initial condition upon which science diplomacy approaches are conceived and/or implemented. Human geography matters because it influences the interdependence of different stakeholders. In conclusion, transversal analysis of our S4D4C case studies demonstrates an underlying influence of geography in science diplomacy. Physical geography matters because it has shaped national needs that have fostered scientific and technical expertise, as well as complex institutional arrangements and industry development over time, which may be exploited as national soft-power assets (in international relations). Meanwhile, human geography may increase or decrease interdependence, the need for negotiations and the likelihood of shared challenges between regions/ countries, which influence general diplomatic approaches and the scope of science diplomacy.


Flink, T. (2020). International Joint Research Programming. In: Young, M., Flink, T., Dall, E. (eds.) (2020). Science Diplomacy in the Making: Case-based insights from the S4D4C project.

Gallup, J.L., Sachs, J.D., Mellinger, A.D. (1999). Geography and Economic Development. International Regional Science Review, 22 (2): pp.179232.

Henderson, J.V., Zmarak, S., Venables, A.J. (2001). Geography and Development. Journal of Economic Geography, 1 (1): pp.81-105.

Hibbs Jr., Douglas, A., Olsson, O. (2004). Geography, Biogeography, and Why Some Countries Are Rich and Others Are Poor. PNAS, 101 (10): pp.3715-20.

Montana, J. (2020). Scientific advice for fisheries management in the European Union: transnational science diplomacy in practice. In:Young, M., Flink T., Dall, E. (eds.) (2020). Science Diplomacy in the Making: Case-based insights from the S4D4C project.

Nye, J.S. (1990). The Changing Nature of World Power. Political Science Quarterly 105 (2): pp.177-92.

Tomalová, E., Černovská, E., Aukes, E., Montana, J., Dall, E. (2020). Water Diplomacy and its Future in the National, Regional, European and Global Environments. Young, M., Flink T., Dall, E. (eds.) (2020). Science Diplomacy in the Making: Case-based insights from the S4D4C project.

Ravinet, P., Cos, R., Young, M. (2020). The science and diplomacy of global challenges: Food security in EU-Africa relations. In: Young, M., Flink T., Dall, E. (eds.) (2020). Science Diplomacy in the Making: Case-based insights from the S4D4C project.

Rungius, C. (2020). SESAME a synchrotron light source in the Middle East: an international research infrastructure in the making. In: Young, M., Flink T., Dall, E. (eds.) (2020). Science Diplomacy in the Making: Case-based insights from the S4D4C project.

Šlosarčík, I., Meyer, N., Chubb, J. (2020). Science diplomacy as a means to tackle infectious diseases. In: Young, M., Flink T., Dall, E. (eds.) (2020). Science Diplomacy in the Making: Case-based insights from the S4D4C project.