EU SD Alliance and DLR-PT organized a hybrid workshop at the SAPEA Conference: Science Advice und Pressure “Taking the Heat Off – Science Diplomacy’s Role in Times of Urgency,” Brussels, 28.04.2022.

What are the challenges and pressures currently faced by science diplomats, especially governmental science advisors, caught up in the ongoing pandemic and the myriad of global challenges we are facing? This was the central question to be addressed in the initial workshop concept of “Taking the Heat Off – Science Diplomacy’s role in Times of Urgency”, late December 2021. In the meantime, realities have changed and the working environment for science diplomacy has changed drastically. With the new, ongoing situation of war in Europe, the focus of this workshop has shifted away from global challenges towards the impact on science diplomacy practitioners created by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. With a panel of science diplomacy practitioners and scholars, who are all impacted by the current situation in their daily work, a very rich, insightful exchange of experience and reflections was made possible between:

Anna Aberg, Chalmers University of Technology, InsSciDE project researcher

Yuriy V. Kostyuchenko, Scientific Centre for Aerospace Research of the Earth, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and IIASA

Angela Liberatore, ERC (European Research Council)

Jan-Marco Müller, EEAS (European External Action Service)

Daria Robinson, GESDA (Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator)

Frank Petrikowski, German Permanent Representation to the EU

The exchanged was moderated by the EU SD Alliance co-chair Claire Mays (Institut Symlog, France) and by Angela Schindler-Daniels (DLR-PT, Germany), former co-chair.

The hybrid workshop audience – those present in the Brussels room, and about four dozen online – were enabled to participate through Mentimeter. Among those replying, diplomats and scientists were represented in equal measure, and were evenly split between working inside or outside  their country of origin. Setting the scene, they were asked to rank the value of actions to be taken in today’s heated context by persons doing science diplomacy, formally or informally. The small sample gave a snapshot of priorities, which could be compared to actual actions on the international stage.

Jan Marco Müller, representing the broader EU approach, ignited the debate with the assertation that, “to a certain degree, science diplomacy … has lost its innocence”, given that “the narrative of science diplomacy has been keeping communication channels open, building bridges”. With the current situation, he stressed, we must recognize that science diplomacy as a “soft power” has limited utility “as long as arms are speaking” – and ask ourselves whether science is becoming a geopolitical instrument.  Jan Marco also referred to the EU’s Global Approach to Research and Innovation, which was adopted by the European Commission in 2021 and emphasizes European values, among which universal values of science, such as academic freedom.

As a response to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the EU has suspended cooperation with Russia and will not conclude new contracts or agreements with Russian organizations. Moreover, many scientific institutions themselves have cut ties with Russian institutions. But what are the consequences for the Ukraine? Besides the destruction of a large part of the Ukrainian science ecosystem, scientists have become refugees. These refugees have been greeted with an abundance of solidarity on different levels throughout Europe. But Russian scientists have also suffered a big blow – Russian science is becoming isolated from the global community and science budgets are waning – inevitably leading to a brain-drain, which in turn will have a global impact. International infrastructure is already affected. Particularly, research on global challenges will be impacted. Arctic science, mused Jan Marco, cannot do without Russia. How to deal with these issues will have to be addressed case-by-case.

At the same time, the tensions of today are not entirely new. We have seen increasing mistrust between research players on a global scale developing over the last years, including China and other countries, with increased scrutiny when it comes to cooperation.  This is an issue where science diplomacy has a role to play! In the future, there will be a greater focus on people-to-people relations rather than inter-institutional relations. Direct engagement and cooperation will be more important.

Moving from a European to a national perspective, Frank Petrikowski pondered whether we need to rethink our “idealistic” view of science diplomacy: “science cooperation is always good, it always builds bridges” – for on the contrary it can be extremely difficult and painful!

In this situation, there is an urgent need for different instruments and a need to be “very flexible in reacting towards different situations as they arise”. Questions arise without answers :  e.g. Belarus was just suspended from the European higher education area, under what conditions will we let them back? Frank also underlined that, like the EU, the German Ministry of Education and Research has suspended or stopped all cooperation with institutions in Russia and Belarus, nonetheless maintaining people-to-people and individual support. Frank presented the resources made available to Ukrainian refugees in Germany; he highlighted the need for balance between integrating researchers and students into the German system, while still respecting their wish to return to the Ukraine as soon as possible – a great challenge!

Changing the perspective from a governmental to a Ukrainian science perspective, Yuriy Kostyuchenko gave valuable insights into what he believes to be vital to the Ukraine science community now.  Yuriy emphasized that the war is leading to an all-encompassing “communication crisis” which is changing our “social communication” on a global scale.  We need to continue using science diplomacy instruments – even in this situation – as they offer safe means of communication. Yuriy closed with the statement: “Ethics are fundamental to our humanity; barbary is no reason for us to abandon our civilization.”

Taking up the person-to-person aspect of science diplomacy, Angela Liberatore stressed that when speaking about science diplomacy we should not only focus on the work of scientists in regard to their support of foreign policy, but also foreign policy trying to help scientists “get science done right”.  She also stressed that “we should never abdicate from (science) diplomacy when it is most needed” because we need to find “spaces for the exit” not only in times of war but also in regard to e.g. climate change: “What are options to get out, to adapt, so as to go forward? This is part of taking the heat off”. It is also important to keep the “asymmetries” between victims and aggressors in mind, not only in cold wars, but “clearly” the “very hot ones”, which necessitate long term perspectives to properly address the aftermath.

Enhancing the discussion, Anna Åberg, historian of technology and a partner in the Horizon 2020 project, added the “realities” of multilateral projects, specifically ITER, the fusion reactor facility currently being built in France. ITER is one of the world’s largest science collaborations, in terms of both cost and number of participants, including the EU, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. ITER was conceived during the Cold War, with the aim of serving as a model for international scientific cooperation that could “weather the worst geopolitical storms”.  It has been hailed as a classic example of science diplomacy and it is currently one of the few science collaborations that includes Russia that is still running. There are no mechanisms in place for the exclusion of members, because ITER’s flat organization is designed to enable partners to sustain their participation. Anna pointed out that even a theoretical exclusion would have to be supported by other members of the project – and China and India today would appear highly unlikely to ratify such a decision. ITER was built on a basis of compromise and reciprocity, with shared responsibility and shared decision making as an ideal. The objective was to stand strong in times of geopolitical difficulties; to do so, mutual trust is essential, Anna stressed.  Infrastructures, technologies, sciences are always intertwined with political, economic, and social values, and ethical norms. Science diplomacy must be aware of this intermeshing and these different values must be addressed together at all times – this is a very big challenge for science diplomacy!

Closing the discussion with a forward look, Daria Roberson, from GESDA, pointed out that the Geneva science diplomacy anticipator brings diverse elements and definitions of science diplomacy together. GESDA was established last year by the Swiss government to support multilateralism, as a tool for “soft power”. Its point of departure is science, not policy. The challenge is anticipation. Not today’s technologies and markets, but rather those coming up in the next 25 years are the focus. Scientific communities are brought together with the policy and diplomatic communities, to discuss upcoming issues of significance that need to be thought through much earlier in time, including more topics that come from the humanities. As we move from crisis to crisis, the speed of events is staggering. If we have the possibility to anticipate, we can be prepared, not just for how technologies are going to be used, but how policy makers or business leaders can deal with the situations when they arise. There is a lot more work to be done.

   Key outcomes:

More focus on people to people relations rather than inter institutional relations

Rethink the “idealistic” concept of science diplomacy

Instruments must be flexible

Discussions on science diplomacy reactions and instruments should include science stakeholders

Keep science diplomacy communication channels opened

Find and define exit strategies

Science diplomacy has to be aware of the cross-cutting consequences of decisions, whether about politics or about technology

Scientific values cannot be separated from other values

Trust and trust-building are essential

Anticipation is necessary for preparation

Note: SAPEA is part of the broader European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism.

The conference link:


Taking the Heat Off: Outcomes from the Alliance SAPEA workshop