“Science requires political support”

Political scientist and sociologist Dr Tim Flink conducts research on science diplomacy. Why realigning foreign science policy is so import­ant for international research cooperation in view of global challenges.

Issue 2 | 2023

Interview: Klaus Lüber

The internationality of science has been politically relevant for a very long time, and researchers need diplomatic support. Why are science and foreign ­policy so closely related?

Flink: We are facing challenges in the 21st century that make cross-border activities in science indispensable. Otherwise we will not be able to tackle climate change in particular, with its lethal consequences for humankind and nature, let alone the dynamics of change in health, migration and security, as well as in overlapping areas. Foreign policymakers depend more than ever on scientific advice in order to be able to discuss topics that are actually too complex for conventional diplomacy. At the same time, science is becoming increasingly relevant to security policy on account of its technological output alone. All of this requires a readjustment of foreign science policy.

This strategic realignment has come to be known as science diplomacy. What exactly is meant by this?

Flink: The Royal Society, the scientific academy of the UK, provided a good summary of the three most important dimensions in 2010: science diplo­macy involves providing scientific policy advice, using science to achieve diplomatic objectives and making available a political framework for international science cooperation. I always particularly stress the logistical role it plays in politics because this tends to be trivialised. However, science requires political support in order to be able to address challenges to society as a whole on a cross-border basis.

Is scientific independence not precisely the goal?

Flink: To put it somewhat bluntly, as a scientist you cannot simply fly to the Arctic and start drilling into the ice to research climate change. Or remove biomarkers from patients in a Central African state so as to de­velop a drug to combat a tropical disease. Such activities require international coordination at the political level, and they need a solid financial basis. Above all, you must have the opportunity to cooperate with local researchers. Nowadays, science increasingly means teamwork.

“Science diplomacy means more than just funding educational scholarships. It is also about establishing large-scale multilateral projects.”

Where do you see the evidence for this?

Flink: In the area of publications, for instance. If you look at scientific publications from recent years, especially in STEM subjects, you will see that virtually all of them are co-authored. And over 50 per cent of the co-authored publications involving German authors are joint inter­national articles – and the percentage is rising. Science has become a highly international and collective undertaking. Science diplomacy in this context means more than just funding educational scholarships. It is also about establishing large-scale multilateral projects, which has long been happening thanks to international research and technology funding. What is new is the realisation that science has foreign policy relevance.

Science diplomacy, in the sense of modern foreign science pol­icy, also includes a commitment to norms and values such as academic freedom. Can this be achieved?

Flink: First and foremost, I believe it is important that pol­iticians have recognised the opportunity to use the term science diplomacy to initiate a discussion about values. What needs to be addressed are questions relating to the freedom, responsibility and security of science beyond the specific national frame of reference. This should be used to reinforce universities in their role of conveying values. Nonetheless, the idea of cooperating on the basis of shared values is ­rather tricky, in my opinion.

In what sense?

Flink: Because we do not really have a shared value basis with many governments – and I’m not referring only to China here. The question is whether international research and development cooperation is in fact possible despite differing political values, human rights violations, a policy of censorship and security concerns. Cooperating with autocratic systems for example always entails the risk that one will bolster their systems in the process, perhaps by helping to produce technologies that can also be used for oppression purposes. I am generally sceptical about our chances of using cooperation to bring about a transfer of values that will result in any substantial changes to the political system in the partner country. On the other hand, science diplomacy certainly can be used to engage in value-based discussions about working together in a fair and honest manner and to raise questions of integrity within science – such as the Global South’s structural dependence on a science system that continues to be dominated by the West. This is where science has immediate political implications. Alternatively, science diplomacy can be used to create spaces for exchange ­beyond political boundaries.

“Foreign policymakers depend more than ever on scientific advice.”

What concrete form might such an exchange take?

Flink: One example that springs to mind is SESAME, a large-scale research project in Jordan and the Middle East’s first-ever synchrotron – a device that supplies high-energy radiation for measuring physical processes. The project involves many scientists from the Near and Middle East, which is well known to be fraught with considerable political tensions. And yet cooperation on the ground is possible. That for me is an example of successful science diplomacy.

Are there also cases where science diplomacy isn’t successful or perhaps reaches its limits?

Flink: Yes. Whenever too much is promised but the necessary resources are not made available. And when too much is expected of science.

What kind of expectations are you referring to?

Flink: The expectation that science should not only be able to understand and give appropriate advice on specific challenges such as climate change, but ideally should stop it happening all on its own. The same applies to the health sector and the high expectations of medic­al breakthroughs. Or the notion that science could deescalate ­political conflicts on a grand scale. That is naive, politically apologetic and an expression of Western arrogance. The issues being addressed by many countries and regions that are undertaking tremendous efforts to build up their educational and research capacities are quite different. They initially – and indeed still – involve access to knowledge and fair participation in the production of scientific knowledge. In such cases, I believe it would be disastrous to exert pressure on science to develop solutions for everything under the sun right from the outset.

Do we also expect too much from science these days in terms of its ability to stabilise society? After all, scientific findings appear if anything to be losing credibility.

Flink: That impression is wrong. Overall, there is still very great trust and confidence in science across the democratic spectrum of all political parties, both in Germany and in other states. And it is precisely this that one can and should take advantage of for the purposes of science diplomacy. —

Dr Tim Flink is a research associate working in the Bundestag office of the Berlin SPD MP Ruppert Stüwe, where he is responsible for supporting the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment and the Subcommittee on Global Health. Previously, Flink was a postdoc pursuing research at the Robert K. Merton Center for Science Studies of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research.