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December 2020–February 2021

Science diplomacy – where chemists make a difference

Chemists have always been central in assisting their governments with many complex diplomatic matters. The interface between science and diplomacy is captured in the term ‘science diplomacy’, which even has its own Wikipedia definition:  ‘the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems and to build constructive international partnerships’. Climate change, ozone depletion, the storage and security of chemicals, and the elimination of chemical weapons are all issues where chemists and their specialised knowledge are vital to creating sustainable solutions. Professional societies such as the RACI have a vital role to play in supporting chemists to contribute to these pressing international issues.

It’s now almost 10 years since the UK’s Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science met to clarify what is meant by science diplomacy and to stimulate further development of this field. They described three different aspects of science diplomacy: science in diplomacy (informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice), science for diplomacy (using science cooperation to improve relations between countries) and diplomacy for science (facilitating international science cooperation).

Science in diplomacy: The chemistry of the atmosphere is fundamental to our understanding of the world’s climate and our climate future; chemists were also critical in the debates about the ozone layer and the development of the Montreal Protocol, on substances that deplete the ozone layer. The safety and security of chemicals such as ammonium nitrate became global news recently with the explosion in Beirut harbour. A further example is the development of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) where Australian chemists worked closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs. The RACI provided strong support to government in this process. Many Australian chemists made vital contributions to the programs of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the organisation set up to implement the CWC. The RACI kept its members informed through a series of articles in Chemistry in Australia over several years about the CWC and OPCW activities.

Another form of science diplomacy is the appointment of scientists into diplomatic positions in embassies abroad. Australia made its first such appointment to the High Commission in London in 1926, followed by Washington (1941), Tokyo (1971) and Moscow (1976). Their duties included recruiting scientists and gathering information about technology and industrial developments and policies in their host countries. Many of these appointees were seconded from the scientific staff of CSIRO until responsibility for the positions was transferred in 1981 to the public service.

Diplomacy for science: Gaining access to international research facilities often requires diplomatic support. Such facilities include telescopes, high energy beam accelerators such as CERN in Geneva and various synchrotrons. Generally, these arrangements for international access have been negotiated through diplomatic channels.

Science for diplomacy: The RACI’s many international connections are outlined in the Institute’s Centenary Book published in 2017. Many Australians have contributed significantly over decades to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists (IUPAC). The RACI took the opportunity to help start the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies in 1979, becoming one of the 11 inaugural members. Specialised groups have also become engaged with Asia, such as the Asian Federation of Medicinal Chemistry, while mention can be made of the Pacifichem conferences and the activities of the two Australian learned science academies (AAS and ATSE). Individual chemists have contributed to these networks of connections through research cooperation and international conferences.

Overall, the high reputation of Australian chemistry in the international arena reflects positively on the nation’s international image. In this way, chemists strengthen Australia’s ‘soft power’ and Australia’s attractiveness to international audiences. Unlike hard power, based on military capabilities, soft power refers to the appeal of a country to others and, since its enunciation in 1990, has become increasingly recognised as an important asset in diplomatic matters.

Not all activities fit exactly into one of these categories of science diplomacy. Some can be more than one type at the same time. An example is the Sesame synchrotron in Allan, Jordan. The synchrotron in Jordan was created under international auspices, namely, Unesco, bringing together as member countries Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Turkey. This is definitely an unexpected group of countries to be involved in a cooperative venture. Clearly it required considerable diplomatic effort to be established (and thus is an example of diplomacy for science). Sesame’s web site also states that one of the goals is to build scientific and cultural bridges between diverse societies, that is, to contribute to a culture of peace (and so is also an example of science for diplomacy).

Australian chemists and their RACI have already made wide-ranging contributions to the diverse activities where science and diplomacy interact. As the world pivots towards an uncertain and complex future, it is important that these contributions continue.

Further reading

Davis L.S., Patman R.G., Science diplomacy: new day or false dawn? World Scientific, 2015.

Krasnyak O., Ruffini P.-B., ‘Science diplomacy’, Oxford Bibliographies, 2020.

Spurling T.H., Webb J.M., Chem. Int. 2018, January–March, pp. 10–14; AsiaChem 2020, vol. 1(1), November, pp. 68–71.

John Webb FRACI CChem, Tom Spurling FRACI CChem and Greg Simpson FRACI CChem

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