“We must not be naive”

Dr Jan Marco Müller coordinates science diplomacy and multilateral relations at the European Commission. In our interview he reveals why it is crucial for the EU to have a joint strategy – and why science and technology have once again become pieces on the geopolitical chessboard.

Issue 2 | 2023

Interview: Sarah Kanning

Dr Müller, you are coordinating the European Union’s efforts to develop a joint science diplomacy strategy. Science diplomacy is sometimes described as a “soft power” – why is it so important for the EU?

Jan Marco Müller: Science diplomacy has become very popular over the past fifteen years. More and more EU member states have adopted their own science diplomacy strategies and expanded the science capacities of their foreign ministries, and an entire research community focusing on this topic has evolved. Despite these efforts, however, we are seeing that our competitors – be it China, the US or other countries – use science diplomacy much more strategically. Building on the Global Approach to Research and Innovation, Europe’s strategy for international cooperation in a changing world, we, under the auspices of the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission, have initiated a participatory process aimed at developing a joint European framework. The goal is to better coordinate science diplomacy in the EU, identify synergies and draft an EU-wide approach.

Why is science diplomacy so popular just now?

The global problems and challenges are becoming ever more complex. They are increasingly difficult to understand – which is why scientific expertise is needed. Global commons such as the Arctic, the oceans, the earth’s orbit and the moon are spaces that in the past were managed de facto by science. Now they are becoming increasingly politicised, militarised, commercialised – half of the active satellites in our orbit belong to Elon Musk, for instance. These are issues that need to be addressed on a political and diplomatic level, yet it is science that has the necessary expert knowledge. We also have technologies that are being developed faster and faster, and changes in society – consider for example Donald Trump and the storming of the Capitol, or indeed Brexit. Science finds itself increasingly caught in the middle; it is seen by some as belonging to the elite that they wish to overthrow, while others, such as Fridays for Future, take to the streets to campaign for scientific facts.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it clear to many people that science diplomacy is not only about nice, positive and noble things like building bridges and keeping doors open, but can also mean restrictive measures, such as those taken against Russia or to counter influence from abroad. These are two sides of the same coin.

How does science currently perceive itself?

Science itself is of course also changing, entering more into dialogue with society and politics via open access and citizen science and scientific policy advice, and is itself becoming a diplomatic actor in the process. Since 2018 we have had the International Science Council as the global voice of science, while organisations such as CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, now have official observer status in the United Nations General Assembly.
We must not be naive, however. We must acknowledge that science and technology have once again become pieces on the geopolitical chessboard. Regardless of whether one considers this a good or a bad thing, it is a fact, and science needs to position itself and enter into a dialogue with diplomacy.
We have already seen from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine that science is increasingly entering the diplomatic arena: not only have sanctions and restrictive measures been imposed by the EU, but many universities have also ended cooperation with their counterparts in Russia of their own accord. This is a diplomatic instrument that is being used in science. The DAAD is also represented very prominently in these debates.

How are you attempting to develop a joint science diplomacy strategy for the EU?

With great frustration! (laughs) No, but seriously, bringing the worlds of science and diplomacy together is no easy matter, despite there being great enthusiasm on both sides. There are many challenges on the legal and institutional levels alone: the EU’s joint foreign and security policy applies to its 27 member states, whereas the European Research Area extends all the way from Iceland to Israel. It is not our goal to develop just one big science diplomacy strategy for the EU; it’s about the process itself, about getting researchers and diplomats to talk to one another and to understand one another. Together with stakeholder communities such as the EU Science Diplomacy Alliance, we began in the autumn of 2022 to draw up the elements of a European framework for science diplomacy.

You have identified four “pillars” that you wish to explore more closely. How are these defined?

The first concerns science diplomacy and geopolitics, and is about war and peace, the pressure on global commons and the future of multilateralism. The second pillar is scientific policy advice, in other words how scientific evidence can find its way into foreign policy and how for example diplomats can be better prepared for what lies ahead, i.e. things that are being developed in labs or evolving technology with geopolitical implications. People always talk only about artificial intelligence in this context, but it is also a question of mRNA vaccines and their geopolitical relevance, or of genome editing and how it affects global trade.
The third pillar relates to the role of science at embassies, i.e. the role of science attachés for example, or how alumni networks in other countries could be strengthened or cooperation with researchers in the diaspora improved. The fourth major area is training and capacity building, not only in terms of those who work in science or diplomacy, but also of those who are responsible for translating between the two worlds. I see many job opportunities in this area!

What is the next step now?

We are in the process of setting up working groups for each of these areas and plan to raise the topic at a high-ranking level at the first European Science Diplomacy Conference in Madrid in December and to communicate it to the public. Science diplomacy was included on the political agenda for the first time at a meeting of EU research ministers in July 2023. And all 27 member states agreed that it is high time to jointly address this topic.