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Science academies in politics and diplomacy

InsSciDE had the great pleasure of joining a group of representatives from science academies around Europe in discussing the historical and future role of their institutions in political and diplomatic affairs. The conference was organized by the Italian science academy Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei on 27 May 2021 and included members from academies of Italy, France, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden and the UK. It was entitled ‘The History of European Academies in the 20th Century: State of the Art and Institutional Issues’ and was the first in a series of workshops to be organized by each European science academy under the broader initiative ‘Academies and politics: Cold War and beyond’.

InsSciDE’s Coordinator Pascal Griset and work package leader Maria Paula Diogo gave presentations that illuminated ways in which the histories of academies can be studied and reflected on in the present-day. Griset examined the evolution of the French Academy of Sciences in response to pressures to modernize in the 20th century and Diogo shared the case of the Abbé Correia da Serra, a 19th century science diplomat and member of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences.

Learn about the cases presented below!

The French Academy of Sciences facing contemporary challenges

Griset presented strategies implemented by the French Academy of Sciences to overcome its decline in influence in the 20th century. Science and the role of scientists had been changing rapidly for some time, while the Academy had evolved only marginally since the 19th century. Reforms were necessary to overcome the Academy’s financial struggles and competition from emerging more specialized institutions, including Griset’s own CNRS and Inserm.

Three areas became key to the solution:

  1. Institutional reforms: In the 1960s the academy was dominated by a select few old men, and it needed to get younger, include more women and increase its membership.
    There were two opposing visions in this regard. The Elysée supported a more radical approach towards a U.S. model, with the Academy diversifying its portfolio and expanding membership. Meanwhile, established members of the Academy were conservative, aiming to preserve the institutional culture and maintain its independence from politics. The debate extended to the conceptual core of an ‘academy’is it a group of experts or a ‘hub of intellectual power’?
    From the mid-70s to the start of the 21st century, membership doubled, and the average age of the elected Academy Presidents dropped. The gender balance, however, remained stagnant in that period but has been slowly improving since then.
  2. Communication: The visibility of academy initiatives needed to be enhanced and its products and information diffused more effectively to stakeholders.
    A central ambition was reinforcing legitimacy and funding for the Academy’s prizes, which had over time been dispersed into many more but lower-value prizes. The solution entailed partnerships with businesses, foundations and major research institutions, a strategy that stands firm today.
    The Academy also split their singular scientific publication the Comptes Rendus, which had neared 14,000 pages in its 1965 edition, into seven discipline-specific reviews, successfully boosting the Academy’s exposure.
    Another important avenue for visibility became the media. Journalists received attractive invitations to Academy events and the Academy learned to manage their public image through the media when tackling sensitive issues or globally relevant challenges such as climate change.
  3. Expertise: The faltering of the Academy’s political influence was evident already during WW1 as its members unsuccessfully tried to contribute on issues such as soldiers’ health and weaponry. The Elysée aimed to rekindle relations in 1979 by entrusting the Academy with the task of conducting a report and issuing recommendations on France’s capabilities in mechanical sciences. The working process behind the report proved challenging in diverse ways, as the multidisciplinary Academy sought to ‘write with one pen’ and establishments clashed on the question of the Academy’s independence from political affairs. For instance, in the 1980-90s the Academy and its Committee for Space Research maintained a firm stance against the endeavour of human space flight by both France and Europe, a politically and diplomatically unacceptable position that caused tension in several directions.
    The Academy continues to provide expertise to the French government through such reports, including on Covid-19 management and the global climate crisis.

Griset concluded the presentation by underscoring that communication and expertise are enduring challenges for academies of science, which need to consistently adapt to changes in national cultures and the political climate. The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) is a positive recent evolution of academies, reflective of the increasing need for international coordination and cooperation on science and its application towards development goals.

The audience was left with three important areas to consider when examining the history of academies: the academies’ interactions with society and relation to power; the concept of technoscience, which can illuminate the meaning behind the notion of expertise or the role of experts; and the international dimension of science academies, which InsSciDE is documenting in its work package ‘Science Diplomats’. Below, Diogo shares an extract from one of the work package’s case studies.


The Lisbon Academy of Sciences as a tool for science diplomacy

Diogo presented the life of the Portuguese botanist Abbé Correia da Serra to demonstrate the role that scientists and science academies have played in informal diplomacy in the past.

He contributed to the establishment of the Lisbon Science Academy in 1779, which arose from three motivations: as a tool for modernizing the country, as a hub for political complicities and as a hub for scientific networking. The Abbé had a utilitarian view of science and believed the academy should be used as a motor for progress, focusing on knowledge about natural resources and their exploitation. But he spent much of his life abroad as he fled Portugal for political reasons on multiple occasions.

By the time he arrived in America in 1812, after living in Italy, Britain and France, he was a leading European naturalist, specialized in botany and geology. He fulfilled functions that today we might label science for diplomacy, networking with diplomats, politicians and scientists across the country. He taught courses and was involved in the structuring of various education institutions, inter alia in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson. He became known for his unique style of ‘tea-cup diplomacy’ and friendly debates on science or philosophy. The geopolitical power struggles of the time made this a particularly effective means of engagement, and he wrote directly to President Madison on the topic of exploitation and revenue from mineral resources such as iron, copper, salt and silver. In 1816, Correia da Serra finally became the Portuguese Ambassador. But he assumed the position in an increasingly tough diplomatic climate, with wide-spread anticolonial movements and the Portuguese colony of Brazil in an unstable state. When Correia da Serra wrote to President Monroe for support, the request spurred the passing of the Neutrality Law and a disappointing response from Jefferson that declared ’All entanglements with that quarter of the globe should be avoided [...]’.

Diogo pointed out the aim of economic and scientific agency for Portugal at the core of Correia da Serra’s actions as both a diplomat and prestigious scientist. His connection to the Lisbon Academy of Science contributed as a networking hub and connected American and Portuguese scientists, facilitating what today we could call science for diplomacy.


4 June 2021
Daniella Palmberg

The History of European Academies in the 20th Century: State of the Art and Institutional Issues
27 May 2021
Organized by Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei

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