1. How to Get Started?
2. What Is Science Diplomacy?
3. Who Are the Science Diplomacy Stakeholders?
4. How Does the EU Practice Science Diplomacy?
5. What Are the National, Regional and Thematic Approaches of Science Diplomacy?
6. What Set of Skills Do I Need to Be a Good Science Diplomat?
7. Hands On! Case Studies
8. How Can You Dive Deeper into Science Diplomacy?
Satisfaction Survey

2.3.7 A Critical Reflection on the Science Diplomacy Discourse

While welcomed by many, the concept of science diplomacy has also received fundamental criticism. In this topic, we list the main points of critique: normative, imprecise, idealistic, instrumentalises scientists/science, optimistic, and sensationalist (N-I-I-I-O-S) together with the selected sources (Table 1).

Below you can find the list of references and more detailed lists of critique for the individual sources. All critical reflections have in common that they put the focus on the concept of science diplomacy and its use as a label. The critique is not concerned with the practices behind the label.

Main aspects of critique (N-I-I-I-O-S)

As conceptualised by Charlotte Rungius and Tim Flink, these are the main aspects of critique to the concept of science diplomacy:

N – Normative

  • Originated in a strategic political situation
  • Use of the term geared by political aspirations
  • Not empirically substantiated
  • Normativity is often kept tacit

Definitions do not describe SD as it is in its diversity, but as it should be with regard to its missions considered as priorities”

Ruffini 2020

The lack of agreement over the meaning of SD allows various actors to use the term—which  resonates neutrality of means and purposes—to push their individual agenda”

Trobbiani and Hatenboer 2019

References: (Ruffini 2020; Rungius and Flink 2020; Trobbiani and Hatenboer 2018; Penca 2018)

I – Imprecise

  • A catch-all term
  • Concept is of small analytical and academic value
  • It creates problem of agency with regards to actors
  • It is in some aspects even contradictory (comprising even oppossing interests; narrow-altruistic)

Definitions should obviate ambiguity, and usually their essential components get clearly defined alongside, unless they are trivial or common sense. But neither science nor diplomacy can bear on common understandings.”

Flink 2020

It is far from being stable and clearly defined. Instead, different understandings based on economic (competitive), political or scientific objectives create tensions for the coherence of the term.”

Trobbiani and Hatenboer 2019

References: (Penca 2018; Trobbiani and Hatenboer 2018; Ruffini 2020; Rungius and Flink 2020; Rungius et al. 2018)

I – Idealistic

  • Benefits of science in the international arena largely based on universal values of science
  • Idea of universal values of science empirically and theoretically contested (highly romantized image)
  • Epistemic context of scientific values disregarded (adaptation to political sphere is problematic)
  • Risks to raise high hopes that have no basis in fact

Science serves as an allegory for the universal human motivation and pursuit of reason. Scientific disinterestedness is expected to act as a unifying point of orientation deliberately opposing competing national interests. Science is used emblematically for communism, universalism, and disinterestedness, but in a deeply political context: to counter what are considered the deficiencies of politics; divisiveness, opposition, and self-interestedness.”

Rungius and Flink 2020

Science diplomacy promises to (re)install collaboration of actors and reason in international affairs. Amidst defective national egoistic policy-making, scientists and their advocates are portrayed as competent and altruistic saviours that help the world’s society solve its grand challenges and overcome its looming threats.”

Flink 2020

References: (Rungius and Flink 2020; Flink 2020; Rungius et al. 2018)

I – Instrumentalises scientists/science

  • Instrumentalisation of science for particularistic purposes
  • Politicisation of science
  • Potentially hijacking apolitical efforts within science that contribute to international relations

Scientists or scientific organizations are meant to act as unselfish and therefore credible facilitators in politics. At the same time, however, they are not supposed to touch upon grand policy goals. […] As congenial as this may sound, however, the discourse takes a role model for reality, and no matter what status, it would still remain highly presuppositional and conceptually probelmatic.”

Rungius and Flink 2020

References: (Trobbiani and Hatenboer 2018; Runigus and Flink 2020; Flink 2020; Penca 2018)

O – (Unduly) Optimistic

  • Talk-action discrepancy
  • Emphasises cooperation over competition
  • Soft-selling of power dimension (soft and hard power)
  • Does not reflect: scientific interests are not necessarily peaceful

The missing reference to competition is the strongest manifestation of the gap that exists between the reality of SD and the way it is most often talked about”

Ruffini 2020

References: (Penca 2018; Flink 2020; Rungius and Flink 2020; Ruffini 2020)

S – Sensationalistic

  • Tied into the frame of global challenges/grand challenges
  • Evoking a sense of urgency to act

The concept of science diplomacy is embedded in the narrative of a crisis, in fact a looming scenario in which the world is facing pressing and existential problems that do not only affect a single nation state anymore but the entire mankind. In the face of a threatening future, science diplomacy appears as a sensationally empowering vision.”

Rungius and Flink 2020

References: (Rungius and Flink 2020; Flink 2020)

Caveats of criticism

  • The discourse is marked more by realist conceptions today; has become more pragmatic
  • Concepts help to make sense of the world regardless of how realistic/empirical they are

See (Ruffini 2020)

An alternative way to deconstruct these critical reflections about science diplomacy is by focusing on each group of authors:

Jerneja Penca, EL-CSID

First, Jerneja Penca, from EL-CSID, raises the following concerns:

  • The typology by the Royal Society and AAAS is built on a premise that international scientific relations are conducive to win-win situation, disregarding competitive aspects
  • It is unrealistic to assign specific clear-cut cases to one single typology
  • Typologies stays silent when it comes to the question of how exactly science cooperation translate into improved international relations
  • Typology discounts the role of factors, other than the official policy and potentially  hijacks those apolitical efforts

The author so states it in the following quote:

“… the character of ‚science diplomacy’ is fuzzy. There remains a considerable scope for understanding the relevance of the discursive innovation of “science diplomacy”. Is the concept identifying a novel practice and if so, what is it? If not, what is the reason for this new rhetoric? Fundamentally, what policy implications for the EU does this rhetoric generate?“

Penca, 2018

Tim Flink and Charlotte Rungius, S4D4C

Second, Tim Flink and Charlotte Rungius, from S4D4C, raise the following concerns:

  • Science diplomacy is embedded in affirmative discourses of public engagement such as grand societal challenges, responsible research and innovation, transformative innovation, missions or anything that carries the buzzword “sustainability”
  • It uses an idealised image of science that hardly matches with lifeworld realities, as science may also contain chauvinism, fierce competition, vanity and reputation games, misconduct and unsavoury entanglements with nefarious business and political interests
  • There is a misinterpretation of scientific norms as a practical reality and incorrectly taking them at face value
  • It is oxymoronic: the discourse holds that diplomacy should foster international collaborations of scientists to support their (allegedly) non-political interests of advancing knowledge, while at the same time its advocates want to instrumentalise scientists for political purposes
  • The discourse is largely uncritical towards underlying assumptions

These aspects can be noted in the following quotes:

“That large parts of the discourse on science diplomacy sensationally portray scientists as unpolitical, cosmopolitan and truth-seeking collaborators, however, seems not naive but strategic. And yet, the question is whether such raised expectations, as provided by promoters of this discourse, are not greatly overdrawn — and what happens, if they get disappointed?”

Flink, 2020

“The discourse misconceives ideals and norms for real and will therefore disappoint social expectations, and second, because science is likely to be instrumentalised for political purposes”

Rungius and Flink, 2020

Pierre-Bruno Ruffini, InsSciDE

And third, Pierre-Bruno Ruffini, from InsSciDE, raises the following concerns:

  • The concept of science diplomacy emphasizes too much on collaborative virtues of science
  • National interests as drivers behind science diplomacy are often neglected (received more attention and open debate only recently as part of more realist conceptions)
  • Power relations between countries are overshadowed; power aspect often not mentioned
  • Intentions behind science diplomacy not necessarily peaceful (e.g. espionage, territory expansion)
  • The rationale of competition in SD is underestimated
  • idealistic rhetoric serves political purposes of action: to arm actors with a rhetoric magnifying the transformative power of SD
  • Discourse is dominated by practitioners with academic background and strong belief in the virtues of science
  • Science diplomacy advocates “are opinion leaders, influencers, actors or even activists of SD“ with a high aspirations, e.g. commitment to improve the world order, less aware of pragmatic conditions on the grounds of scientific virtues
  • Current conceptualizations do not serve academic interests and do not account for the complexity of the subject matter

This quote is quite illustrative:

“States may conduct strategies of SD that are strictly rooted to their national interest and aiming only at taking advantage over others, thus not contributing to the quest for a better world order, which is at odds with the prevailing vision of SD”

Ruffini 2020

Read more from these critical examinations of the concept of science diplomacy:

-      Flink, Tim. (2020): “The Sensationalist Discourse of Science Diplomacy: A Critical Reflection.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 15(3), 359-370 (Link)
-      Penca, Jerneja (2018): The rhetoric of “science diplomacy”: Innovation for the EU’s Scientific cooperation? The EL-CSID Project. Institute for European Studies. Working Paper 2018/16: 1–16.
-      Ruffini, Pierre-Bruno (2020): “Conceptualizing science diplomacy in the practitioner-driven literature: a critical review.” Humanit Soc Sci Commun 7, 124 (Link)
-      Rungius, Charlotte, and Tim Flink (2020): “Romancing science for global solutions: on narratives and interpretative schemas of science diplomacy.” Humanit Soc Sci Commun 7, 102  (Link)
-      Rungius, Charlotte, Tim Flink, and Alexander Degelsegger-Márquez (2018): State-of-the-art report: summarizing literature on science diplomacy cases and concepts. Deliverable 2.2. S4D4C, Vienna
- Trobbiani, Ricardo, and Constant Hatenboer (2018): The Future of EU Science Diplomacy: Conceptual and Strategic Reflections. EL-CSID Policy Briefs, EL-CSID Policy Paper 2018/14. Brussels: Institute of European Studies (Link)
Creative Commons License

The material provided under this course is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.