The best way to learn and practice negotiation skills is to engage in simulated experiences like role-playing mock negotiations. To bridge theory and practice, many educational approaches use experiential learning to place participants in various simulated scenarios to identify and develop the skills to negotiate an international agreement or overcome a diplomatic conflict, for example in water and environmental cooperation.
Past cooperative encounters between scientists and diplomats can be used as case studies. Drawing from such experiences, students are assigned country/organisation positions, given a particular case, and asked to articulate and negotiate their position in a manner representative of their real-world counterpart. The role-play simulation allows the player to identify the boundaries and optimal conditions for applying their scientific expertise in a particular diplomatic scenario. As scientists and engineers being asked to provide expert information, they experience first-hand the nuances between advising, advocacy, and activism. Role-playing reveals the ambiguities, trade-offs, and competing interests at play in the policy process.
The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy has compiled a list of resources for teaching negotiation skills in the context of science diplomacy. One such resource is the Mercury Game, developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Mercury Game is designed to teach people about the role of science in international environmental policymaking. Participants become immersed in negotiating an international environmental treaty to regulate mercury pollution and face the challenges of communicating and managing scientific uncertainty to different audiences. Using the findings in the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Mercury Assessment, the game brings diplomats from North and South nations, science advisors, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and industry lobbyists around the negotiation table to devise a global agreement for regulating the limits of mercury in food, artisanal products, and industrial output.
When scientists take on roles in the Mercury Game, they shed their own identity and adopt a different character and perspective in order to push forward their agenda and interests. The most effective players learn to frame scientific uncertainty positively or negatively to their advantage – depending on their roles as science advisors, NGOs, industry lobbyists, or country officials. For example, a common tactic by industry representatives is to delay action or regulation based on the lack of definitive scientific evidence, hence the importance of learning to manage and communicate uncertainty.
Through role-play negotiations, scientists are challenged to experience different value systems and defend arguments with which they might not agree outside the terms of the game, thus experiencing the realities of being a diplomat and having to defend your country’s position even if it’s contrary to your personal values and beliefs. They learn to assess the credibility of various sources of technical information, balance scientific and political considerations, grapple with geopolitics – exploring the dynamic between the global “North” (the developed world) and the global “South” (the developing world) at the heart of most multilateral agreements- and most importantly, they learn to follow protocol. In diplomatic settings, you cannot speak whenever you like: order, rank, hierarchy and tone of delivery are critical. A scientist called for expert advice that ignores protocol will be ineffective, no matter how robust the data she brings.
Experiential learning teaches skills like mental agility, professionalism, cultural sensitivity, and empathy that are essential to reach effective, science-informed responses to today’s global challenges.
It is important, however, to point out the limits of science diplomacy. The negotiation of international treaties and agreements usually takes place under considerable scientific uncertainty. In general, problems are rarely fully understood at the time political decisions must be made – especially during emergencies, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic – and international negotiations often begin before conclusive scientific evidence is at hand. In addition, Pierre-Bruno Ruffini (2018) argues that the extent to which diplomats understand and use scientific knowledge as well as that the clashing of national interests during major negotiations can jeopardize science diplomacy effectiveness. In the case of climate change, the large consensus that exists among scientists about the origins and long term risks of climate change does not always translate into a consensus among diplomats over the appropriate course of action.