The ‘Matters’ of Science Diplomacy: Governance Systems

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 ‘Governance Systems’, co-authored by Mitchell Young & Ewert Aukes.

Governance systems are like policy fingerprints; each domain involves a unique configuration of actors, stakeholders, processes, instruments, and institutions. Governance systems are both planned and emergent, and they matter to science diplomacy because they organize how foreign and domain-specific policy address grand societal challenges in concert. They may emerge as the sum of dispersed governance activities or are intentionally constructed as a targeted response to address a specific challenge. In both cases, many governance levels tend to be involved in science diplomacy sometimes exclusively and sometimes in cooperation. The comprehensiveness of the governance system in place to address a given challenge conveys the degree of confidence that there is that something can be done about that challenge. In this section, we examine governance systems across the S4D4C case studies that demonstrate these domain spanning characteristics, in particular, the environment (food security, water diplomacy), health (infectious diseases), technology (cyber-security) and science policy (Open Science diplomacy, international joint research programming).

For that purpose, we look at the broader picture of the various governance systems and seek to identify three types of nodality that affect science diplomacy. Christopher Hood and Helen Margetts introduce this term to public policy in the context of a cybernetic systems-based model for understanding the tools of government. For them, the term nodality refers to the property of being in the middle of a network (Hood and Margetts, 2007), and it provides the government with the ability to traffic in information (ibid, p.6). In our analysis of governance systems, we are interested not so much in how the government uses nodality as an information tool, but how the nodality of different parts of the governance system affects its overall configuration. Drawing on network analysis (Borgatti, 2005) in a qualitative manner, we think about nodality in terms of different types of centrality, such as the amount and the quality or importance of the connections present. In other words, the more central a part is in the system, the more influential it is. Hence, imagining governance systems as networks, the concept of nodality allows us to consider the importance of system parts from a structural perspective. We focus on three nodalities to help us better understand the dynamics of governance systems:

1. Nodality of science: how central is science in the system vis-à-vis diplomacy?

2. Nodality of level: how central are specific levels of governance vis-à-vis others?

3. Clustering of nodes: which actors or institutions cluster together, and are they part of the core or the periphery of the system?

Nodality of science

Science nodes are actors, stakeholders, instruments or institutions that deal with science-based policy substances. Governance systems may involve various science-based policy substances, such as stimulating transformations in systems of knowledge production (e.g., Open Science, international joint research programming) or exchanging domain-specific knowledge (e.g., water diplomacy). There are also politics-based policy substances that involve science nodes, e.g., the preservation of national interests in the fields of cybersecurity, food security, or infectious diseases. In general, some policy domains in the science diplomacy component are stronger than in others. These include cyber security and international joint research programming. In other domains, the diplomacy aspect plays a secondary role visà-vis the domain aspect. Furthermore, some domains are situated on the intersection between science diplomacy and international development, such as infectious diseases or water diplomacy. To date, food security is still weakly linked to European foreign policy. This overview demonstrates that science diplomacy efforts are undertaken in various traditionally national policy domains, though to different degrees.

Governance systems will be organized differently depending on the prioritization of issues on the policy agenda. For example, the recognition of cyber-attacks as a high priority issue in some countries has spurred the organization of a dedicated governance system with international ambitions. In other words, the nodality of system parts may change depending on reprioritizations in the policy agenda. It also means that governance systems of relevance for science diplomacy may not be present in all cases. The position of policy domains on the science diplomacy agenda ranges from very low to high in the cases. When a policy domain is low on the agenda, this may have to do with the fact that there is little diplomatic room to manoeuvre or it has not yet become a relevant foreign policy topic. The former is illustrated by the food security domain which can rather be characterized as a basic need and demand for a well-functioning food supply system that should not be jeopardized. Open science illustrates a policy issue in the science policy domain that is high on the international science policy agenda, but that has not yet risen on the foreign policy agenda. Intermediary or mixed policy domain prioritization can be observed in cyber security, water diplomacy and international joint research programming due to various reasons. For instance, prioritization of water diplomacy ranges from a strategic policy domain, including proactive promotion of expertise through a broad array of programs for international water governance knowledge exchange (the Netherlands), to a lack of a national water diplomacy strategy (Czech Republic). Only infectious diseases are to be found relatively high on the international policy agenda, not only recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as a continuous field of attention. Whether this relates to basic health provision or dealing with crises often depends on the local context.

Nodality of level

In many cases, domain-specific governance systems pertaining to science diplomacy start from the national level. This is not surprising as many domains covered in the cases, e.g., environment, health, technology and science, are traditionally national responsibilities. International joint research programming is a typically national endeavour one for which structural processes are fragmented. A structural process that has been in place at the European level, the European Research Area networks (ERA-Nets), have had some success of institutionalizing this domain, but is dependent on EU funding to exist. Survival of ERA-Net-induced international relations after EU funding ceased have been reported, but are not the norm. For cyber security, food security and water diplomacy, we also find sub-global structural processes in place at the European level. A case in point is the Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform or in the food domain the HighLevel Policy Dialogue on Science, Technology and Innovation. Water management aspects covered by sub-global European processes seem limited to technology transfer, which is merely a small share of what water management encompasses. As previously mentioned, national and sub-global structural processes and mechanisms in the field of Open Science are limited to the domain of science policy. Processes in that field crossing the boundary into foreign policy, which would also make them relevant for science diplomacy, are scarce to date. The most elaborate international institutional frameworks to be found in our case studies, where they clearly feature foreign policy objectives, exist in the fields of food security and infectious diseases. Especially in the latter domain, the framework is robust and tightly-knit. International and supranational systems dominate the domain of infectious diseases. Bilateral relations in this field are not prominent. National systems link up immediately to multilateral ones. It involves international NGOs such as the World Health Organization, national governments and research organizations, e.g., the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness. In food security, the international governance system includes intensive bilateral and multilateral relations between the EU, the UN and (countries from) the AU.

The capacities and capabilities supporting governance systems are very diverse and scattered across levels. Once again, food security and infectious diseases stand out as policy domains in which there are ample capacities on all governance levels. In other policy domains, the capacities dedicated to science diplomacy are very much dependent on the country and specifically in the case of cybersecurity the relative novelty of the domain. The character of national capacities and capabilities in cyber issues may include, but is not limited to, the presence of high-tech sectors, such as ICT, whether the country has faced cyber-attacks, or whether there is sufficient budget to be redirected to this domain. In the domains of water diplomacy and international joint research programming, similar patterns are to be found. The odd one out is Open Science, where many countries have capacities in science policy specifically, e.g. (inter- )nationally operating research funding organizations, but not interpreting this as a foreign policy issue.

Clustering of nodes

In most cases, similar actor configurations can be found. Oftentimes, domain ministries or their executive agencies formulate the national policy position, including possible implications for foreign policy. They supervise sub-national domain organizations, agencies or institutes, such as national or sub-national health agencies, and in return receive science advice from them. Domain ministries are often also the point of contact and communication with actors on the international stage, in some cases coordinated by or even cooperating with the ministry of foreign affairs. Depending on the historical importance of the domain in the respective country or agreements/treaties about subsidiarity when it comes to the EU and current agenda setting, domains may be declared priority domains. Given the globalized and networked world we live in, this prioritization often entails (or perhaps must entail) ambitions on the international stage. Policy priorities then turn into overall strategies and may initiate a process of (trans-) national system establishment. Depending on bilateral or multilateral ambitions, such systems may then consist of domain ministries, the foreign affairs ministry, dedicated EU institutions, dedicated international organizations, NGOs and include mechanisms geared towards aligning positions and monitoring or reviewing scientific research in the domain. The latter then relies on domain-specific systems. For example, in the case of infectious diseases, this may involve medical information systems (cf. COVID-19).

We have sought to demonstrate that governance systems matter for science diplomacy by describing the nodality of science and levels as well as how nodes are clustered in them. The nodality of science in various systems needs to be considered in relation to the nodality of levels. Apart from an equally central importance of both aspects in some situations, the nodality of one comes at the expense of the other. In terms of policy substances and positions on the science diplomacy agenda, this entails the tension between dealing with a global challenge as a political or as a scientific problem. Science diplomacy, then, is about finding the right balance of these in different stages of addressing global challenges. Nodality of level depends, on the one hand, on the perceived locus of the challenge to be addressed. On the other hand, it depends on which level there are effective actions to be taken. For example, international food supply chains or the high risk of globally fast-spreading infectious diseases makes these domains prototypical for strongly institutionalized governance systems on the international level. Other issues, such as cybersecurity, for now remain situated on the national level due to aspects detailed above. Hence, the notion of nodality offers a different way of looking at the state of and trade-offs within governance systems pertaining to science diplomacy.


Borgatti, S. P. (2005). Centrality and network flow. Social networks, 27(1): pp.55-71.

Hood, C.C. and Margetts H.Z. (2007). The Tools of Government in the Digital Age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.