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Scientists as Diplomats: Reflecting on Values, Impact and Career Paths

What does it take to act as a diplomat when you were trained and define yourself professionally as a scientist? InsSciDE co-organized a plenary panel discussion on this question with the grassroots association Euroscience for the latter’s 8th bi-annual open forum: ESOF 2018 Toulouse.

InsSciDE researchers and practitioners were joined by two scientist-diplomats to reflect on how the different roles and identities can be reconciled.

InsSciDE historian and organizer Léonard Laborie introduced the July 2018 discussion by illustrating that a century ago some dreamed of science and scientists taking over diplomacy in world governance. Dutch physician Pieter Eijkman created a movement before the First World War targeting the creation of a World Capital, where scientists and experts would create common solutions to global issues and enforce them as law. There is little talk now of achieving peace by handing the reins of government to scientists. Today’s thought is more in terms of combining duties and strengths. Scientists can’t replace diplomats, nor can diplomats substitute for scientists. Still, there are circumstances in which scientists act not only with but as diplomats. The panel provided insight into the evolution of science diplomacy, and different trajectories taken by its practitioners.

* InsSciDE historian Laurence Roche-Nye shared a glimpse into the personal experience of the first French science attaché, posted in Moscow in the 1960s. Space science had turned into a key sector for dialogue and a test of cooperation between the two countries during this period. Coming up to speed was not an easy task within the habitual educational background and cultural scope of diplomats - at least on the French side.

* InsSciDE archeologist Pascal Butterlin pointed out that excavations as conducted abroad by French experts had –among others – a diplomatic dimension from their inception in the 19th century. As director of the Mari site in Syria, at the border with Iraq, he described the special twist in practice of the last two decades adapting to geopolitical factors and war conditions prevailing there. Butterlin showed that archeology, war archeology and international collaborative efforts to preserve heritage will stay high on the diplomatic agenda in the years to come.

* As a precocious mathematician – and young war refugee – Qëndrim Gashi , first experienced the power of science diplomacy on a personal level. He met a diplomat trained in math who understood his desire to go abroad and pursue high level training, and in fact enabled this. Gashi thus trained in the 1990s and 2000s in the best universities in Europe and the US. More recently, as Gashi had always been interested in politics he decided in turn to engage in diplomacy for his birthplace Kosovo [1]. This choice of career put him at odds with a number of scientist colleagues who did not understand and argued against this path.

* Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) then spoke of his own unanticipated transformation from scientist to high-level state actor. While a promising physics researcher at Princeton, Holt decided to engage in US State Department affairs to help monitor arms control and nuclear proliferation issues. Holt, who was later elected to the U.S. Congress, explained his engagement as a response to diplomats’ need for science advice and insight, when “there was simply no scientist in the room”.

All the panelists agreed with Holt’s observation that if scientists today take up diplomatic roles, and if governments want this to be a fluid passage, a key need will be to ensure that scientists can later be welcomed back into their science role and valued there.

InsSciDE thanks its guests, whose frank remarks and insights led ESOF 2018 Toulouse organizers to describe the panel discussion as among the very best of the week’s plenary sessions.


[1This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/99 and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on Kosovo’s declaration of independence