British Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently made the case for research as a political bridge.
How the UK is building a foundation for a new kind of international policy
Last week, top scientists from more than 100 countries gathered in London for one of the biggest scientific meetings of the year: the InterAcademy Panel. Hosted by the Royal Society as part of its 350th anniversary celebrations, the Panel brings together the world’s science academies to identify how science can help tackle urgent global problems. At the top of the agenda in 2010—the International Year of Biodiversity—is how to stem the crisis of global biodiversity loss.
But biodiversity is only one of many policy priorities where scientists have a role to play, some of which go beyond the traditional preconceptions of scientists’ job descriptions. In a speech on Tuesday, David Miliband, the UK Foreign Secretary, called for a much stronger role for science in foreign policy. At first glance, scientists and diplomats don’t make obvious bedfellows. While science is in the business of uncovering truth, Sir Henry Wotton, the 17th century diplomat, famously pegged an ambassador as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”
But the concept of “science diplomacy” is now attracting heavyweight support on both sides of the Atlantic. President Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, which set out to redefine the US’s relationship with the Islamic world, announced an expanded team of science envoys in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In the UK, Professor David Clary, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, was recently appointed as the first chief scientific adviser at the Foreign Office.
There are strong foundations on which science diplomacy can build. Advances in science have long relied on international flows of people and ideas. The post of Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society was instituted in 1723, nearly 60 years before the British Government appointed its first Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Throughout the Cold War, scientific organizations were an important conduit for informal discussion of nuclear issues between the US, Europe, and the Soviet Union. And today, science cooperation offers the potential for alternative channels of engagement with countries such as China, Russia, and Pakistan.