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Nanoscientists in Diplomacy: Power of Many Individual Acts

On 23 November, InsSciDE brought together a science diplomacy (SD) power team for an open training session targeting nanoscientists. Entitled "Science Diplomacy: A New Way to Think About Your Role in a Community of Research", the workshop was part of the online EU NanoSafety Cluster Training Day for NanoSAFE’20. Speakers shared their personal and professional journeys through SD arenas, then dialogued with participants in breakout sessions.

The European External Action Service – EEAS, Europe’s "foreign ministry" – openly relies on the NanoSafety Cluster to help build scientific cooperation and raise awareness on European goals, values and priorities. This science-diplomatic role engages both institutions and individuals. In the words of InsSciDE’s Claire Mays, the workshop aimed "to help participants think of their roles as centered within an international community of research - and reflect on how stepping out of pure disciplinary roles in order to communicate values may help change the way people and political structures deal with global challenges in their own context."

Dr. Lorenzo Melchor (FECYT) provided an "Initiation to Science Diplomacy" showing its importance in tackling global challenges that require connecting science, technology and foreign policy. The COVID-19 crisis illustrates such a need for multilateral response at global scale. Defining SD is tricky, as it deals with anything that joins these multiple fields, from meshing policy frameworks to engaging diverse stakeholders and bridging the gaps between the scientist and diplomat backgrounds. “Science diplomats” are boundary spanning persons who understand the respective worlds, and through specific missions or networking and communication contribute to solving multidimensional challenges. Lorenzo noted that while these roles may be institutionalized positions, alternatively they might not be as clear cut (think NGOs or academia).

In his keynote presentation "How I Got Here and What I Learned on the Way", Dr. Guillermo Orts-Gil shared his personal story moving from nanoscientist to diplomat to Head of Communications & Public Relations at IBEC. He recounted his journey from a childhood with science-trained parents who taught him that science is an important part, but not the only part of life. Trained abroad as a physical chemist Guillermo became head of a nanotechnology group at the Max Planck Society. Then one day he made the jump to SD, as the first international science coordinator at the Spanish Embassy in Berlin. His job was to “place STI affairs within international relations and the international policy system”. Guillermo described what he finds to be the three important components of modern SD:

  • science diplomacy is based on relationships;
  • these need to be translated into tangibles or concrete goals;
  • these goals must add value for the stakeholders.

Guillermo reflected on how to actively integrate science in our lives: why be the best scientist if you have no relationships to help share, analyze, and grow?

Follow the whole story in Guillermo’s illustrated Twitter thread.

In a panel entitled "Border-crossing Scientists", nanoscientists Dr. Adriënne Sips (RIVM) and Dr. Antonino Puglisi (BOKU) shared how transdiciplinarity and cultural sensitivity are essential to their practice of science. Adriënne spoke from her position as a bridge between innovators and regulators: in the world of responsible research and innovation (RRI) "it is imperative to have individuals who can crosstalk between stakeholders, scientists and the public in order to help innovation meet societal expectations".

Antonino (a WSDS20 alumnus) described how going to Turkey on a research grant brought him into close collaboration with Turkish scientists and institutions, leading him to recognize how SD can strengthen the link between society and science. In his words, "we can make space to learn the languages of both policy and other nations in order to employ science for the benefit of others."

InsSciDE’s political scientist Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen (UiT) then emphasized the need in SD to think and dialogue across disciplines and across the four big systems surrounding humankind: society, nature, culture, and technology. Academics are trained to ask and answer a question; Rasmus encouraged all to pay attention to understanding the important questions being asked outside their discipline. This leads to better grasp of divergent interests and values found in competitive and conflictual societies, key to advancing the common good in a globalized world.

The breakout group with Antonino and Claire recognized that "cultural crossing as scientists" can shake up identity. In his time in Turkey, Antonino "found out that I can learn from everybody – and found out how Eurocentric I was… We judge political systems in the light of our culture where politics has been emancipated from religion for centuries". It was helpful to start all interactions from the basepoint of being a nanoscientist, recalling that he is not a government representative, and seeking friendship rather than personal polarization. Gabriel Aparicio analyzed the need to keep science free of polarization and stereotypes, fostered by mobility across countries and sectors. Tassos Papadiamantis reflected that national histories shaping each generation may be extremely divergent. He has found that "putting aside the idea that ’I’m right’ and continuing through empathy" is a powerful approach. The group touched on the Marie Sklodowska Curie program as a platform to build solidarity among scientists (Antonino co-founded a chapter in Turkey) and, discussing a traumatic border crossing, emphasized that refugee scientists aided by the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) network are not simply emigrating, but are fleeing war.

The breakout with Guillermo and Rasmus included participants ranging from diplomats to chemists, neuroscientists to industry professionals. Each shared views on "political and economic contexts of science exchange". WSDS20 alumna Jenice Goveas (STI Policy Postdoctoral Fellow to the Government of India) spoke to how the political context of science policy varied greatly across its lifecycle from research conception to implementation within the wider population. India stepped into the field of nanotechnology in 2001; Jenice is conducting analysis of the resulting innovations’ tangible value to draw lessons for other emerging technologies. InsSciDE’s Christina Bürgi Dellsperger (UNESCO) shared her own practice as a diplomat, creating communication through discussing favorite football teams with her Turkish colleagues as Head of Economic and Cultural Section of the Swiss Embassy in Turkey. Guillermo agreed that diplomacy is not always about the big treaties between countries, but also the small exchanges between people. Further conversation spanned topics from UK/EU fishing stocks in the context of Brexit to how scientific exchange can operate in the day-to-day life of a bench research laboratory. Rasmus concluded with advice that when embarking on multidimensional political relations, it is important to not confuse understanding with sympathy; no matter what, it is imperative to keep communication lines open and continue dialogue in order to facilitate mutual growth.

Adriënne and Lorenzo led the breakout “Scientists who carry out government missions to address global (and other) challenges”. Adriënne noted that despite the topics’ obvious proximity, policy talk on nanotechnology and nanosafety is often siloed. When nanotechnology is recognised as relevant to the Sustainable Development Goals, the safety component is not typically addressed explicitly. In her dual role of bringing together countries as well as sectors, Adrienne’s first step is often to raise awareness of safety’s significance for innovation. Lorenzo spoke of cultural adjustments in moving from the lab to the embassy. Coming from a comparatively free environment in academia, scientist-diplomats will find they need to get "lots of green lights" to advance through projects. Asking "why did I fail at convincing them?" can help improve delivery of the crucial "elevator pitch", but sometimes science will simply not be the priority in competition with sectors of trade, finance, culture and more. Adriënne added a blunt piece of strategic advice: learn to cope with disappointment. In the field of innovation, where trajectories of initiatives can change rapidly, she learned that building trust with individuals and finding ways to sync goals can be essential buffers when plans change.

The workshop ended with a reflection by EU NanoSafety Cluster leadership that in ten years this assembly has built trusting relationships, as well as cooperation with nanoscience communities in Mexico, Iran, and Asia. The science diplomacy concept can frame even larger outreach, help refine the Cluster’s goals, and offer a stepping stone towards better consideration of Responsible Research and Innovation.

Participants are encouraged to enrol in the S4D4C Online Science Diplomacy Course or consider applying to InsSciDE’s competitive Warsaw Science Diplomacy School, taking place in June 2021.


Published 10 December 2020

Science Diplomacy: A New Way to Think About Your Role in a Community of Research
Online training workshop hosted 23 November 2020
Organized by Claire Mays for SAbyNA and InsSciDE

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