The ‘Matters’ of Science Diplomacy: Interests

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 ‘Interests’, co-authored by Charlotte Rungius and Lorenzo Melchor.



National interests are a matter of principal importance in science diplomacy. On the one hand, the concept of science diplomacy problematizes (national) interests as potential obstacles to tackling global challenges. This dimension is mostly reflected in the understanding proposed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Royal Society model, which frames science diplomacy as a matter of fostering collective action between nation-states (Rungius and Flink, 2020). In that sense, science diplomacy is proposed to mitigate interests that are defined too narrowly and that do not incorporate scientific evidence. However, the concept of science diplomacy acknowledges that nation-states follow their own interests. In that regard, science diplomacy is also framed as part of a country’s soft power – a foreign policy instrument in the diplomatic toolbox. This soft power dimension is particularly reflected within the Science for Diplomacy dimension that is part of the AAAS/Royal Society definition. The accentuation of interests rather than practices was prominently re-accentuated by the pragmatic taxonomy of science diplomacy, brought forth by four national science advisers (Gluckman et al., 2017). This taxonomy suggests distinguishing between science diplomacy to advance national interests, to settle cross-border issues and to tackle global challenges. This notion relies on science as part of a country’s soft power, the attention of which is largely focused on advancing national interests. This understanding closely reflects the original sense of the term, when it was for the first time explicitly introduced into a foreign policy strategy. The president of the United States, Barack Obama, appointed science envoys and implemented other traditional science diplomacy measures in order to restore the damaged reputation of the United States among Arab countries and the Middle East. When science diplomacy is discussed in light of foreign or innovation policy strategies, it is primarily with an aim to represent a nation’s interests. In that sense, interests matter as key dimensions at least in two different ways within the concept of science diplomacy.

This ambivalent meaning of national interests within science diplomacy definitions produces an ‘interest paradox’ between ‘competition’ and openness rationales: on the one hand the promotion of a country’s scientific competitiveness and innovation potential, on the other hand, efforts to foster collaboration among countries in the international arena to tackle global challenges. How can these two scopes (competition vs cooperation) be harmonized or jointly approached, acknowledging that, in particular, competition means different things in economic (productive advantages over scarce resources), political (struggle for power) and scientific (competition for first and valid findings, and reputation games) terms? The cases of Open Science (Mayer, 2020), Future Emerging Technologies (FET) flagships (Degelsegger-Márquez, 2020), and Food Security (Ravinet et al., 2020) shed some light upon this conundrum. While Open Science is generally geared to trigger collaborative science on a global scale and is included in the international efforts to tackle global challenges, our case study also reflects the conflicts of interest that pertain to objectives of fair cost-sharing, intellectual property rights, and other competitive interests (Young, 2020). Open Data or Open Educational Resources potentially face a lack of reciprocity and a dilemma of collaborative vs competitive science (Mayer, 2020). By contrast, the Future Emerging Technologies flagships were designed as a strategic and competitive science, technology, and innovation (STI) instrument to ensure innovation and economic impact remain in the EU. Third countries were principally excluded from full participation. However, within a highly internationalized science and innovation system, these protective policies did not reflect the necessary de facto international collaboration taking place behind the scenes (e.g. review system). The study identified a major challenge “for research policy instruments of the scale of the flagships to define a balance between openness and restriction, cooperation and competition.” (Degelsegger-Marquez, 2020: p.127) Furthermore, this approach collides with the approaches such as the collaborative ‘Open to the World’ policy (European Commission, 2016), although certain cooperation regimes have been explored and established in light of the challenge to find a practicable balance between openness and competition.

On a similarly general level, but apart from national interests, one could argue that science diplomacy is also driven by the interests of the scientific system alongside political, economic, and personal interests (see Young, 2020). The ‘Diplomacy for Science’ dimension of the AAAS and Royal Society models highlight science as an international endeavour that comes with a number of tangible requirements, partially served or facilitated through diplomacy. In the broadest sense, the most optimistic framing of science diplomacy is the possibility of generating synergies between different systems (science and foreign policy) acting in their own interests. Framing science diplomacy as a “boundary object”, bringing together the world of scientific and technological research with the world of international affairs, implicates profound challenges on the basis of seeking and combining mutual interests. Scientists and diplomats have different backgrounds and represent different interests which may be conflicting. Working closely together with diplomats and political actors, scientists may fear they will be instrumentalized for national or political interests that are not their own. Indeed, epistemic interests (the quest for knowledge) may be politicised and reinterpreted by others within a political context, e.g. they may include a political mission. This reinterpretation reverberates and can have an adverse effect on the original scientific interests that are expected to be disinterested (see Merton, 1973), apolitical or disconnected from purely political goals.

This is particularly a risk in Science for Diplomacy, or Science for Peace constellations, as demonstrated in the example of Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) (Rungius, 2020). Large scientific endeavours provide common ground to build cooperation among nonallied nations. This is the classical ‘Science for Diplomacy’ approach that is illustrated in the SESAME case study. In the SESAME case, scientists from across Middle-East nations collaborate in a large research infrastructure to unveil the secrets of particle physics. Such examples highlight science as a means to enhance cooperation and understanding among civilisations. While scientific development is not unique to any one civilisation, Western cultures embrace scientific development as their own. Understanding how scientific and diplomatic interests may be intertwined to prevent friction among civilisations will be key for human progress. The ways in which interests mattered in science diplomacy constellations investigated in our case studies were often more subtle and unexpected than traditional conceptions of science diplomacy would broadly suggest. The constellations we investigated struggled less with basic conflicts of interest between general stakeholder groups than with establishing, fine-tuning and maintaining common procedures across institutional and national borders in environments with a multitude of implicit, hidden and impalpable individual and organisational interests. The case study about joint programming looking at bilateral and multinational collaborations in science funding (Flink, 2020), showed that there was usually no conflict of interests carried out over general financial shares or budget increases. These conflicts are usually settled before entering into joint programming. In the same way, fundamental interests of the collaborating partner are not challenged as such, but partners have a general willingness to take them into account as much as possible. The difficulty lies in reaching and securing common evaluation standards in the face of divergent legalisation frameworks, routines and customs. It is also difficult to balance occasional interventions and influences from the outside that could not be predicted and sometimes could not even be explained in retrospect, because the actual reasons may they be personal, organizational or political remained in the dark. In some instances, even “insignificant decisions needed clearance from a non-transparent ministry in the back” (Flink, 2020: p.266) leading to “tedious stop-and-go decision making whilst deciding upon the procedure and the evaluation criteria” (Flink, 2020: p.266). In another case, a funding scheme was set and subsequently a ministry interfered, which in itself was not considered to be a problem. But responding to these political requests and thereby deviating from formalized procedures was feared to signal inconsequent behaviour. This may have adverse effects on further spending rounds. Even though structurally different, the case study on European science advice mechanisms in fisheries (Montana, 2020) points in a similar direction. The supremacy of the Commission to define policies and to frame the general epistemological interest is not contested in this case. The mechanism is geared towards reaching consensus on the grounds of representing different opinions. Therefore, it is important that general interests are defined and negotiated in the terms of reference, providing concrete instructions for the science advice bodies, but also defining the limits of their authority (Montana, 2020: p.307). Additionally, the case study underlines that the authority and credibility of such advisory bodies also relies on “including diverse representation of experts from both different national settings, but also from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives” (Montana, 2020: p.301). General interests must be defined and made explicit for science advice to be efficient: first, because political interests may be fought over on scientific grounds; second, because scientists themselves often pursue political goals in the broad sense of pursuing ones own convictions about the subject matter or wanting to “make the world a better place”; and third, because scientists often cannot avoid acting on normative grounds in the way their research questions and objects are framed. While a researcher’s own values unconsciously (and sometimes intentionally) play into questions of methodology and research design, research questions are often designed in a way that instrumentally reflects political and societal needs. “While national political interests cannot be ignored or avoided in science diplomacy, they are just one of a number of interests that must be considered and made visible for achieving policymaking results. The S4D4C cases reveal that a unified or unitary interest seldom exists on any level; rather, we find that there is a complex array of competing and cooperating interests of different types (political, scientific, economic, and personal) that operate on different levels and scales. […] a challenge for science diplomacy is to find an optimal balance between cooperation and competition.” (Young, 2020: p.5) The case studies show that interests profoundly matter in science diplomacy. However, this is less the case in the broad sense of nation-state interests that typological models of science diplomacy may suggest. In concrete science diplomacy constellations, national interests do not pose a challenge to international cooperation as they are generally assumed and accepted. By contrast, institutional, procedural and political interests pose tangible challenges in a more granular sense, especially with regards to creating and maintaining concrete rules and procedures.

Reference list:

Degelsegger-Márquez, A. (2020). International dimensions of the EUs FET Flagships: Largescale strategic research investments as a site of de-facto science diplomacy. In: Young, M., Flink T., Dall, E. (eds.) (2020). Science Diplomacy in the Making: Case-based insights from the S4D4C project.

European Commission (2016). Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World. A Vision for Europe. Brussels.

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.

Gluckman, P.D., Turekian, V.C., Grimes, R.W., Kishi, T. (2017). Science Diplomacy: A Pragmatic Perspective from the Inside. Science & Diplomacy, 6(4): pp.1-13

Mayer, K. (2020). Open Science Diplomacy. In: Young, M., Flink T., Dall, E. (eds.) (2020). Science Diplomacy in the Making: Case-based insights from the S4D4C project.

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.

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. and Flink, T. (2020): Romancing Science for Global Solutions: On Narratives and Interpretative Schemas of Science Diplomacy.

Young, M. (2020). Building Better Science Diplomacy for Global Challenges: insights from the COVID-19 crisis. S4D4C POLICY BRIEF, June 2020. With contributions from: Aukes, E.J., Dall, E., Elorza, A., Kuhlmann, S., Lacunza, I., McGrath, P., Melchor, L., Meyer, N. Vienna: S4D4C. Available at: