Science Diplomacy – a Shift in Paradigm?

October 11, 2015

The Royal Society appointed a foreign secretary way back in 1723, but not until the 1980s did globalisation propel science diplomacy to the forefront of issues from food insecurity and collapsing ecosystems to the International Space Station and Square Kilometre Array, University of Otago Political Studies Department Prof Robert Patman told over 30 at Sunday’s Catalyst gathering.

Climate change is “the poster child” for issues that transcend states and require global scientific cooperation. The International Panel on Climate Change’s 2400 scientists have produced five major impact reports since 1998 and substantial agreement on both the causes and effects. By 2006, even George Bush had to acknowledge that the scientific proof was there and the US military now sees climate change as a strategic threat. But politicians tend to conceptualise graduated timelines, so do not see action as vital despite the critical nature of the impending tipping point.

Is there hope on this front? Yes, Prof Patman says. Governments are beginning to understand that we can’t afford not to act. The problem is, a mismatch between the dire need of the problem and the speed of political response.

How could we better harness the promise of scientific diplomacy? First, scientists should insert themselves more frequently into the diplomatic process and national debate that influences government. “It is incumbent on those who have the knowledge to share it and use it.” And politicians tend to act in response to public calls for action – which requires the public to understand the problems and demand solutions.

And secondly, sovereign states must come to terms with a fundamentally new environment where both problems and solutions transcend their sovereign boundaries and require global responses.

Towards this, the UN needs reform – to ensure it can be a forum for bringing together diplomacy and science on issues that can only be resolved on an international basis. Central to this reform is the need to get rid of the permanent members’ right of veto, Prof Patman said.

Prof Robert Patman