Global Cooperation

Soft power, hard choices: Science diplomacy and the race for solutions

Science diplomacy can tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Science diplomacy can tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Image: Creative Commons/Kenneth Mankoff.

Stephan Kuster
Head of Public Affairs, Frontiers
Marga Gual Soler
Head of Science Diplomacy Capacity Building, GESDA and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader
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  • From climate change to pandemics, the world increasingly faces existential threats.
  • Applying the latest scientific insight and evidence is the starting point for science diplomacy.
  • Three experts shine a light on the missing links between science and international diplomacy.

We face global existential threats. From climate change to health emergencies, we see and feel them now. And these threats come with stark, geopolitical challenges which in turn have three things in common. First, they cross national boundaries. Second, no country or sector will manage them in isolation. And third, managing and reversing them will rest heavily on applying breakthroughs in science and technology.

In order to succeed, we will need to maintain a global perspective and collectively share, understand, and apply the latest insights and evidence. We have the chance to unlock the benefits of science and technology and channel the opportunities that flow from them. That potential is the starting point for science diplomacy.

In this short film from the open access scientific publisher Frontiers, three experts shine a light on the missing links between science and international diplomacy.

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They ask how we might be able to grow consensus when public trust in science and politics is fragile. They flag the risks of a fragile, historic multi-lateral system of cooperation. And they make the case for science diplomacy to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, both current and future.

The film features Dr. Marga Gual Soler, Head of Science Diplomacy Capacity Building at the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader; Robert-Jan Smits, President of the Executive Board at the Eindhoven University of Technology; and Professor Luk Van Langenhove, Professor at the Brussels School of Governance, Vrije Universiteit Brussels.

One for all or all for me?

Science diplomacy can mobilize science for better geopolitical outcomes. It can do so from two perspectives: that of the self-centered, and valid, interests of the state and one founded on preserving the greater good, the “global commons”.

These perspectives are often described as antagonistic, even when preserving the global commons benefits all, states included. In that straightforward assertion, some of the complex dynamics of science diplomacy come to life.

Look at the war in Ukraine, which presented the world with the tragedy of a humanitarian crisis and raised the perplexing question of how to sanction Russia’s scientific efforts.

Many countries reacted with economic sanctions, and many argued that the moral case for those sanctions was clear cut. But what of scientific sanctions, or the Russian scientists cutoff from European funding, and the collaboration with Russian institutions brought up short?

There have been immediate consequences for research. Sanctions have led to an interruption of the measurements in climate change data in Siberia, for example. Indeed, Western Arctic science has lost access to half of the terrain it purports to study.

Or look at the Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference of 2022 (COP27). We saw leading edge scientific knowledge and technology proposed in broader efforts to manage and avert the climate crisis. But we also saw the COP series reaching the limits of its effectiveness in driving agreement, commitment, and action.

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Anticipate to mobilize

Global challenges demand that we build consensus for action. But reaching agreement on how – and even if – science and technology should be applied, for the aggregate benefit of all, is complex, and increasingly so.

Science and technology are tightly intertwined with fast-changing economic, geopolitical, and ideological agendas. That pace of change complicates, and sometimes deviates, the discussions and decisions that could unlock the positive global impact of scientific advances.

Therefore, anticipation is key. Understanding the societal, economic, and geopolitical consequences of emerging and possible new technologies before they are deployed is critical. Just recently, for example, artificial intelligence (AI) labs have been urged by a large number of researchers and leading industry figures to pause the training of powerful AI systems, given the inherent risks to society and humanity’s existence.

Indeed, the rapid pace of scientific development calls for more effective global governance when it comes to emerging technology. That in turn requires better anticipatory tools and new mechanisms to embed the science community as key stakeholder and influencer in this work.

The Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) was created with those goals in mind. GESDA identifies the most significant science breakthroughs in the next five, 10, and 25 years. It assesses those advances with the potential to most profoundly to impact people, society, and the planet. It then brings together scientific and policy leaders from around the world to devise the diplomatic envelopes and approaches needed to embrace these advances, while minimizing downsides risks of unintended consequences.

Consensus for action

Global challenges demand that we build consensus for action. The Frontiers Policy Labs assemble experts and new voices from the worlds of science, politics, and policy to help generate that consensus. It is open to campaign partners driving those efforts and would welcome your thoughts, your insights and your contribution to this discussion.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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