Universities and other higher education institutions (HEIs) hold promise to be vital science diplomacy stakeholders, but their potential as such has hitherto been underutilized.
Main interests in science diplomacy
- HEIs straddle the local, national, and international levels. This is particularly important when it comes to science diplomacy, as scientific objectives laid out on the global level – such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – require implementation at the local level in order to come to fruition. Through research, teaching, and community leadership, HEIs play a major role in the local and national application of a global vision, as can be seen in numerous case studies. Not only that, they also facilitate connections between students and researchers from around the world, and contribute the human resources and knowledge to governments and international organizations. Their bridges span internationally, while also being connected to their local innovation ecosystems; this places HEIs in a unique position to build bonds between actors on all levels. Finally, they provide the physical space, such as laboratories and conference halls, where all dimensions of science diplomacy can unfold.
- HEIs hold the key to forging a robust science diplomacy culture that is desperately needed for navigating the compounding challenges of the future. As it stands, science diplomacy practitioners are usually scientists that appreciate that their work has a diplomatic dimension, or political scientists that recognize the ample space for science in advancing international relations. The urgent need for wider international scientific collaboration cannot rest on such career serendipity, which means universities are vital for fostering curricula that shape awaiting generations of science diplomats. Some universities, such as Georgetown, Harvard, Rockefeller, and MIT, have already pioneered programs that merge science and international relations, but many more need to follow suit if science diplomacy is to be more than a niche profession. With emerging multi-stakeholder platforms like the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the UN Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation for the SDGs, the need for professionals trained in both science and diplomacy is greater than ever, and universities are where the training process beings.
- HEIs can help alleviate the dichotomy between openness and competition that scientific research falls within. The current age is witness to an unprecedented amount of knowledge that can be applied to mitigate the long list of global challenges ahead. However, much of that knowledge tends to be locked within national spheres in order to bolster the knowledge economies and innovation systems of states, rather than being available in the global commons of knowledge under the FAIR (findability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability) If research-focused HEIs reorient themselves away from national innovation systems and more towards the global commons of knowledge, their role as science diplomacy actors would strengthen. This is because by advocating on behalf of the knowledge they impart, HEIs could combat anti-scientism, reduce fragmentation between highly specialized fields, impact public debates, and synthesize knowledge into policy advice. To succeed, however, the rewards system within HEIs must be adjusted to reflect this shift.
To conclude, HEIs stand to strengthen the practice of science diplomacy though serving as actors in its service. Not only do they facilitate links between key stakeholders on various levels, they are integral for developing a science diplomacy culture, and hold the potential to be diplomatic actors in their own right by advocating on behalf of knowledge they generate for the global commons. On top of that all, HEIs promote the values that underpin scientific inquiry – this should guarantee them a place in both the literature and practice of science diplomacy.
As the European Commission was formulating the EU Strategy for Universities, there was no mention of science diplomacy. This spurred the EU Science Diplomacy Alliance to release a paper that stresses the important role that HEIs play in its conduct. When the strategy was released, it addressed the bridge-building capacity of universities in science diplomacy, which was a welcomed step forward. However, there is still a great deal of room to expand the role of HEIs as science diplomacy actors further.
– Del Canto Viterale (2018). University as a global actor in the international system of the 21st Century. Tuning Journal for Higher Education 6 (1), pp. 169-98. (Link)
– Gore, Nichols, & Lips (2020). Preparing Scientists for Science Diplomacy Requires New Science Policy Bridges. The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 15(3), pp. 424-434. (Link)
– Holford & Nichols (2018). The Challenge of Building Science Diplomacy Capabilities for Early Career Academic Investigators. Science & Diplomacy 6(4). (Link)
– Mauduit & Gual Soler (2020). Building a Science Diplomacy Curriculum. Frontiers in Education 138 (5). (Link)
– Van Langenhove and Burgelman (2021). Viewpoint: Science diplomacy needs a refresh to meet contemporary European needs. Science Business. (Link)
 Com 2022 (16 final), p. 14.