What is Science Diplomacy?

Science diplomacy is the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems and to build constructive international partnerships (1).   The NRC Committee on Global Science Policy and Science Diplomacy focused on the definition of science diplomacy.  They drew heavily on the Royal Society (2) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science description that focuses on examples of science diplomacy activities rather than stating a specific definition.  Three main types of activities cited are (3):

  • “Science in diplomacy”: Informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice.
  • “Diplomacy for science”: Facilitating international science cooperation.
  • "Science for diplomacy”: Using scientific cooperation to improve international relations between countries.

The first can also be described as Science Policy in that it intends to expose policy makers with the best information available regarding science, technology and innovation to advise their decisions.  The latter topics refer to facilitating cross-border collaborations to improve science or relationships between nations.  SD is not new but continues to evolve in emerging areas that are not require international cooperation including medicine, the environment, nanotechnology, space, alternative energy and science education. 

A concrete example of the use of science diplomacy is geosynchronous orbiting satellites.  Most communication and broadcast satellites are placed in a geostationary orbit band about 36,000 km above the earth.  The benefit of this location is that the satellite remains in a fixed position above the earth and requires a minimum energy to remain in that position.  Limitations on the number of satellites in that orbit necessitates international cooperation in space allocations that must inherently be driven by an understanding of constraints on proximity to optimize overall usage (science in diplomacy). 

This issue is further complicated by previous use of this region that has resulted in 10s of thousands of softball or larger objects (about 10 cm) floating in this band that are potentially harmful to operational satellites.  The need to understand the physics and movement of these objectives is crucial to the sustainability of the ‘satellite belt’ and requires collaborative international network to advance that understanding (diplomacy for science). 

Collaborations between countries on these issues including transferring technologies (e.g., to minimize satellite failure risk) can benefit maximization of this limited resource while enhancing international relationships beyond this critical need (science for diplomacy).  

1. Fedoroff, N. (2009), “Science diplomacy in the 21st Century”, Cell, 136(1), January, pp. 9–11.
2. The Royal Society and AAAS. 2010. New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy. London: The Royal Society.
3. Committee on Global Science Policy and Science Diplomacy. 2011. National Academies U.S. and International Perspectives on Global Science Policy and Science Diplomacy: Report of a Workshop, National Academies Press, ISBN 978-0-309-22438-3, 60 pp.