Robust Science Diplomacy: A Take-Home Lesson from Switzerland to Africa

By Mekonnen Teshome

Time and again, I travel around the world as a freelance science writer and communicator to attend seminars and conferences that are at times very inspirational and enlightening and on other occasions devoid of insights.  

The 11th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) in which I  took part in Lausanne, Switzerland, and held in  July 1-5,  2019 was extremely stimulating and educational that has left me with a key take-away message – the importance of a robust Science Diplomacy. 

According to the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Science Diplomacy refers to as consisting of three key concepts – Science in Diplomacy, Diplomacy for Science and Science for Diplomacy. Science in Diplomacy  is a notion where scientific know-how and evidence is used to inform and support foreign policy objectives .  Diplomacy for Science is  related with diplomatic efforts and resources that are aimed at facilitating international scientific and technical cooperation Scientific for Diplomacy   is about scientific cooperation that is used as a source of soft power to strengthen or foster foreign relations.

By and large, Science Diplomacy could be defined as a diplomatic relations that involves research-based, scientific, academic and engineering  holistic exchanges among nations and societies.

Having realized its extraordinary significance, Switzerland has managed to maintain its strong Science Diplomacy activities for decades. Science Diplomacy has boosted the  competitiveness and innovation capacity of Switzerland.

Swiss’s main objectives in science are to ensure participation of Swiss institutions and researchers in global networks of excellence and collaborative  funding schemes. Its policies in general are characterized by stability and continuity as well as dynamic  mutual visions between its scientific and diplomatic missions. Of course, it is evident that Scientists and diplomats are not obvious bedfellows. The business of science is  establishing truth while the business of diplomacy appears to be “ truth like “ .  The 17th century diplomat Sir Henry Wotton quoted as defining an ambassador as:  ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’.

In this regard, Vice President of the Swiss Confederation Simonetta Sommaruga stated that Switzerland is firmly anchored in the European Research Area and has been attaching primary attention to science diplomacy for years.  EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, also had his complements on the effectiveness of Swiss science diplomacy.

Switzerland is  host to major international scientific projects and infrastructures such as the Human Brain Project at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN), the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Coupled with hosting these key institutions and being an active member of the European Framework Programmes, Horizon 2020,and  other initiatives of academic cooperation, the country is regarded as a hub of Science Diplomacy.

CERN: An Apparatus of Science Diplomacy

As part of my attendance of the World Conference of Science Journalists, it was really a thrilling experience to visit CERN which is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world.

The over 1,200 science journalists and communications officers from 83 different countries had the opportunity to visit scientific research organizations and labs including CERN and met researchers during the “Lunch@Labs” tours held every day during the week-long conference.

CERN’s establishment convention was ratified on 29 September 1954 by 12 countries in Western Europe Currently  CERN has 23 member statesAustriaBelgiumBulgariaCzech RepublicDenmarkFinlandFranceGermanyGreeceHungaryIsraelItalyNetherlands,      NorwayPolandPortugalRomaniaSerbiaSlovakiaSpainSwedenSwitzerland and United Kingdom.

 Cyprus and Slovenia are Associate Member States in the pre-stage to Membership. IndiaLithuaniaPakistanTurkey and Ukraine are Associate Member States. The European UnionJapanJINR, the Russian FederationUNESCO and the United States of America currently have Observer status.

Thousands of scientists from over 600 institutes and universities around the world use CERN’s facilities including the massive Large Hadron Collider  (LHC) of particles. The gigantic LHC tunnel is located on the Swiss-French border having a 27 km circular circumference at 100 metres underground. The facilities have so far enabled top particle physics scientists to register eight discoveries that add critical knowledge to the enlightenment of humans. 

CERN is one of the biggest institutions that serve Switzerland and other member European countries as a major Science Diplomacy instrument.

The Human Brain Project

Despite the several milestone discoveries, in the understanding  of the brain, it is one of the largest Big Data challenges humanity has faced today. Therefore, the “Blue Brain Project” of EPFL is another Swiss Brain Research initiative involves sophisticated and computerized neuroscience simulation to deal with the mystery of brain.

Swiss Science Diplomacy Network

Switzerland has also established the “Swiss Science Diplomacy Network” aiming at ensuring that Switzerland would be an excellent partner for cooperation in science, technology and innovation.

The network is run by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation which is responsible for strategy, objectives, and funding. The whole objective of the network is to create well-trained scientists and managers of science, technology, and innovation.

Why Science Diplomacy?

Natural disasters like hurricanes, droughts and earthquakes and the catastrophe they inflict are not limited within borders, they transcend national boundaries. Therefore, countries collectively need to make deals such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Forging international cooperation, nations are engaged in various ventures to bring about positive changes in maintaining the natural balance and global ecology.  Also included one denuclearization, advancing trade relations, industrial and agricultural growth. To achieve these objectives, countries need to regulate emerging global technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence, population control mechanisms and digital currencies.

To this end, despite critical geopolitical differences, we see  countries  sign various collaboration frameworks and agreements and implement programs jointly. 

For instance, the U.S. and China  had signed agreement on Cooperation in Science and Technology . The cooperative activities and programs under this agreement have been sustained for decades. It is also to be  recalled that the two countries signed the Ten Year Framework on Energy and Environment Cooperation in Annapolis, Maryland during Strategic Economic Dialogue .  In 2013, a Memorandum of  Understanding  was signed between the Cuban Academy and the   American Association for the Advancement of Science for joint scientific endeavors and exchanges. On many occasions, Scientific communities of the US and Iran have also clinched various cooperation deals to the benefit of the two countries over and over again.

The ownership and use of  the International Space Station (ISS)  was also established  by intergovernmental treaties and agreements among five participating space agencies – NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).

Recently a group of students and their professor performed the first African-led experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).  They used some of the most powerful scientific equipment in existence to examine sub-atomic matter and reflect on what happens when stars explode.

All in all, As Switzerland has maintained fruitful and age-long science diplomacy it could be considered as a model for African countries, be it inter-African or inter countries outside Africa.

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