The value of science diplomacy

Tuesday, 01 May 2012

You can download a PDF of the speech here.

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to speak today.

It’s a pleasure to take a moment, in your company, to think about where Australia’s science and technology future is headed. Beyond this, to think about how that future can contribute to global security and prosperity.

As members of the Australian-Israel Chamber of Commerce, you are already well versed in understanding the value of international links for the economy. Today though, I would like to talk about the value of globalised science - not only for the economy, but for all foreign policy.

And I speak of this from a unique position. As Chief Scientist for Australia, I am an independent advisor for the government and an advocate for science here in Australia. I also have a responsibility to advocate for Australian science internationally – one of the many hats I wear is as science diplomat.

At first glance, scientists and diplomats are not obvious bedfellows. While science is a quest for truth, Sir Henry Wotton, the 17th century English diplomat, famously pegged an ambassador as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

Regardless, science diplomacy is gaining tract world wide. It is a term that captures the various roles science plays in foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on the ability of science to build partnerships between countries – partnerships that can be sustained regardless of the political winds.

President Obama has made a concerted effort to improve foreign relations by using science diplomacy, appointing three –Science Envoys’ and making the famous 'call to partnership’ with the Muslim community in 2009, announcing the establishment of three cooperative science centres. Likewise, the UK Foreign Secretary recently appointed for the first time, a scientific advisor to the Foreign Office, and just last week called for a much stronger role for science in foreign policy, stating “the scientific world is fast becoming interdisciplinary, but the biggest interdisciplinary leap needed is to connect the worlds of science and politics.”

In international relations, science diplomacy makes a lot of sense. For centuries, science and its flow of ideas have traveled across the globe, uniting humanity in the search for knowledge and the application of newly discovered facts, to create technologies, businesses and to form the basis of education.

Now, our planet is facing several global challenges: to its atmosphere, to its resources, to its inhabitants. Wicked problems such as climate change, over-population, disease, and food, water, energy and cyber security require worldwide collaboration to find sustainable solutions. It is science that provides our understanding of these issues, and it is science that will underpin our solutions.

But as the climate change 'debate’ demonstrates, these are no longer solely scientific and technical matters. Solutions must be viable in the larger context of the global economy, global unrest and global inequality. In short, the solutions need to be based not only on sound science, but on sound politics as well.

It stands to reason, then, that scientific expertise should be a fundamental part of diplomatic efforts. As single nations can neither solve them alone nor develop solutions to every problem, scientific cooperation becomes an increasing necessity.

So how does Australia stack up on scientific collaboration? In Australia, we are in a unique position. Our geographical isolation and small world fraction has had two effects: on one hand it has forced us to be self reliant and develop our capacities at home. On the other, it has pushed us towards strong research collaborations in areas where we don’t have resources or capacity.

In astronomy, for example, Australia, participates in the Gemini Project along with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. The collaboration gives Australian researchers access to optical and infra-red telescopes in Chile and Hawaii, and spares any one country the costs of having to build and maintain a facility on its own.Similarly, in marine geoscience, Australia is a partner in the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, a partnership led by the United States, the European Union and Japan. Participation in the program gives Australian scientists direct access to seafloor drilling technology that is worth about US$1 billion and has annual running costs of about US$200 million.

But even on smaller projects where collaboration isn’t built through facility necessitation, between 2002 and 2010, the number of internationally co-authored publications in Australia more than tripled. Now, just under half of all Australian scientific publications are co-authored with overseas collaborators.

More than that, we have seen a shift in the way Australian scientists are engaging with the rest of the world. Historically, we have had strong ties with North America and Europe, and while that continues, there has been much faster growth with our Asian neighbours. In mathematics, engineering and chemistry for example, China is now our strongest partner in collaboration.

As we enter the 'Asian century’, and the Government continues to push Asian literacy in schools and industry, the question could very well be asked, out of science and policy, who is following whom?

But there are countries with which Australia shares great similarities, and yet collaboration is weak. Israel is one such nation. In terms of arable land, climate and water supplies we are very similar, and on the global scientific stage there are even more similarities.

In terms of the percentage of papers produced relative to percentage of world population, the figure is exactly the same – 9.4 for both Australia and Israel.

On the global impact of our research, measured by citations, Australia and Israel share three of their top four fields: physics, plant & animal sciences and space sciences.

On international collaboration, over 40% of both countries’ papers have international co-authors.

And yet despite the similarities, Australia and Israel’s international collaboration together is remarkably small. Less than 4% of Israel’s international collaborations feature Australian co-authors, and only around 1% of Australia’s papers feature Israeli co-authors.

And it’s not getting better. In 1995, Israel was our 14th highest collaborator but in 2010, they ranked 20th.

While this Chamber might be working hard to build strong relations with Israeli business, we must also seek ways to engage more on scientific and innovative levels. If innovation drives business organization, then science, the innovation force, will have to be more closely integrated with business for the well being of both.

Because, according to the OECD, whose analysis essentially echoes our own common sense, knowledge is the main source of economic growth and improvement in the quality of our lives. Nations which develop and manage effectively their knowledge assets perform better. And without collaboration, it is very hard to innovate.

According to our Academy of Science, the last major Australian invention that did not involve some international input was the stump-jump plough… in 1876. Without a competitive strategy to engage with the international scientific community, ongoing innovation would be more than just a challenge.

It can be hard attributing economic success directly to the outcomes of scientific research. As an example, an investigation of ocean forecasting of internal waves across Australia’s North West Shelf provides information for operators of natural gas drilling and production platforms worldwide.

But how are its benefits, in terms of reduced operating down time and production efficiency gains within a multibillion-dollar industry, traced back to the original scientific collaborative work? It is a long financial bow to draw but it is real. And it is something that is recognised across the globe. The proportion of all papers worldwide with one or more international co-authors increased from about 25 per cent in 1996 to over 35 per cent by 2008.

But science diplomacy goes beyond research collaborations. Another way to link foreign policy and science is through science and technological aid to developing countries.

Australia’s overseas aid program – which doubled between 2005 and 2010, and is expected to double again by 2015 (although last week’s budget has extended the time period for the expansion) – aims to assist developing countries reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development, in line with Australia’s national interest.

Globally there is a general consensus that giving aid is an issue of security as well as morality and fairness. It improves our regional security by helping partner governments improve law and order, recover from conflict and manage a range of transnational issues.

However, there is also general consensus that at a global level at least, aid is not always working. Driven by science and technology, the world is changing at a rapid rate. The gap between rich and poor countries is widening and the problems facing the developing world continue.

Science and technology must therefore, become rooted in the social fabric of developing countries. This sentiment was echoed recently in a Science and Development Network editorial which stated that:

“the biggest single factor limiting developing countries’ potential for achieving sustainable economic growth – or even attaining the Millennium Development Goals – is their ability to access and apply the fruits of modern science and technology.”

While the editorial acknowledged there are many obstacles – political and economic – to accessing science, it is nonetheless crucial that capacity building use science and technology be 'at the heart of both international aid policies and broader diplomatic initiatives’.

The Colombo Plan is one good example of Australia’s diplomatic aid efforts. Part of the plan involved the sponsorship of tertiary students from the Asia-Pacific region to study in Australia. Many of those students eventually returned to their own countries where they rose to high level positions within their own science and government structures.

The benefits of science diplomacy are three-fold.

Firstly, strong international collaboration in science improves the capacities of our own scientists at home, giving them access to facilities they might not have otherwise had, and enabling them to build on ideas from the world stock of knowledge.

Secondly, it gives our country opportunities to build relationships with nations, we might not otherwise have had, and to repair or improve our standing with those we may have tension with.

Finally, in a political environment that faces the need to respond to global challenges like climate change and food security, successful science diplomacy can work to create solutions. No single nation is the sole cause or solution to these challenges. But through science collaboration, we can build bridges of trust and cooperation for the benefit of all.

As Chief Scientist, I take my role as an ambassador for science seriously. I do not know whether Sir Wotton would consider me a good man, but perhaps that is ok. Because in my own diplomacy efforts, I do not have to lie to promote Australian science. We already perform strongly and bring much to the international table.

And though, in this room, we may be concerned with international business linkages, we must also, as businesses, foster innovation and seek new markets and new ways of achieving efficiency. Only through our scientific and economic linkages can we ensure Australia is on the right path to an innovative, prosperous future. 

Thank you.


Last updated: Friday, 18 December 2020