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Interview with InsSciDE Science Diplomats Leader, Maria Paula Diogo

Prof. Maria Paula Diogo, leader of InsSciDE’s work on Science Diplomats in Work Package 3, briefs us on a case study from the 18th century, reflecting on what lessons can be drawn from the life and work of a Portuguese botanist turned ambassador to America.

Thank you for joining us to speak about your work for InsSciDE, Maria Paula. You lead InsSciDE’s work on Science Diplomats. Could you tell us about some cases you are currently working on?

It’s a pleasure to speak with you. We are currently working on a case study on a Portuguese botanist from the late 18th century, Correia da Serra, who was the first Ambassador of Portugal to the United States. We have already gathered a huge amount of research on him and we are now dissecting the material from a perspective that is focused on the science diplomacy dimension of his life. We presented a paper on da Serra at the European Society for the History of Science in a session on Science Diplomacy and we are continuing to study the case with this new focus.

View Maria Paula’s selected publications online now.

Why is the case of Correia da Serra interesting from a science diplomacy perspective?

Through our historical case study, we aim to show that science diplomacy has been a practice since at least the late 18th century. Although the case may not fit exactly with today’s defined brand of science diplomacy, there are several aspects of Correia da Serra’s work that we can learn from. He was a scientist and a freemason, and used his connections within freemasonry to move from Portugal to France, then to Great Britain, and after that to the United States. He was a very close friend of Jefferson, and the first Portuguese Ambassador in the United States.

Da Serra became involved in a tense situation concerning the relationship between the United States and the Portuguese in Brazil. He was tasked with dealing with this problem and was instrumental in brokering a diplomatic deal. What is of particular interest is that he was able to do this kind of negotiating because of his prestige in the scientific community. So with this case study, we are looking at the transfer of prestige from the scientific to the diplomatic sphere.

What’s more, Correia da Serra was one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences – so he was part of the network of academies which are of great interest to us in InsSciDE’s Work Package 3. In sum, we are trying to show how, in an early period, we can already see the main frameworks of science diplomacy forming.

You mentioned today’s ‘brand’ of science diplomacy. In what way does the case of Correia da Serra break from the current understanding of science diplomacy?

The goal is to look at science diplomacy with a long term perspective. Sometimes when we think of science diplomacy, we think of it emerging during the Second World War. However, this project strives to build a more inclusive picture of science diplomacy and portray it as something that came to its full maturity in the second part of the 18th century. We want to show that people were already connected on the one hand to the academies of sciences and to professional academies (mainly for engineers), and on the other to personal networks of scientists. Through this information, we can try to understand similar relationships being formed and utilized today and not just look at the very institutional manner of doing science diplomacy. Our research is not only about understanding this particular case study, but also about extrapolating questions concerning methodologies and technologies involved in science diplomacy. We are trying to contribute to the construction of a more inclusive and rich concept of science diplomacy.

And how does the case of da Serra compare with contemporary examples of science diplomacy?

In the early stages of the project we conducted an interview with the Portuguese Ambassador that was in Japan at the time of the Fukishima nuclear disaster. He frequently suggested that there is a type of scientific diplomacy that does not run through institutions but through personal networks. In both the case of da Serra and this modern example of science diplomacy, we see the significance of informal networks. We are interested in finding ways of addressing science diplomacy in a more ‘personal’ way, and understanding how actors use their own channels to pursue scientific and diplomatic agendas, rather than using academies or embassies.

To what extent have the principles and activities of European Academies of Science changed over time?

We have seen European academies progress from being strictly national entities to forming part of a large international network. They were historically the guardians of national agendas within the international arena, but eventually there emerged an international network from these academies – one which is not necessarily institutional.

This dimension of a national institution having an international network put scientists from different countries in contact with each other. Our idea is to ask ourselves how national and international endeavors came to be in the academies, and to look at local, national, and imperial influences on these endeavors.

Thank you, Maria Paula. Coming up is the InsSciDE First Open Conference, which will offer an opportunity for researchers and practitioners of science diplomacy to exchange ideas and learning. What can be gained from this kind of interaction?

It was within the InsSciDE project that I had the opportunity to dialogue with diplomats for the first time, which is important to understand the modern applications of our research. As a historian, it is very interesting to understand how diplomats treat scientific agendas and how they perceive the role of scientists. I look forward to engaging with diplomats and understanding what their expectations from scientists are. Typically, we study the work of scientists, engineers, and diplomats separately, but there is also another important dimension to look at – how these different entities communicate and interact with each other.