Science diplomacy – a catch-all concept in public policy?

Science diplomacy is a concept one crosses quickly when engaging with international research collaborations and specifically with their funding mechanisms. Foreign ministries and other public institutions have research cooperation and research capacity-building in their tool-boxes. This naturally includes the policymakers of countries in the Global South, as outlined by the former South African Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor or by other Southern perspectives. Moreover, recent workshops in Sub-Saharan Africa reflect how scientists are equipped with the skills of diplomacy. But what does the concept of science diplomacy mean? Nicolas Rüffin offers a take on the sometimes fuzzy concept from a European perspective. We invite you to discuss the concept with us in the comments.

Nicolas Rüffin

Science diplomacy has attracted a lot of attention during the last decade. Actors as different as the US State Department, the European Commission, the Royal Society, UNESCO and a great many of other intermediary organizations have adopted the term to re-brand their activities, programs, and agendas. The contexts in which the term science diplomacy emerges are just as diverse as the actors. It almost seems like science has become a panacea for most of the problems in public policy-making. For instance, when looking through the volumes of the journal Science & Diplomacy, we encounter topics like the global challenges, health diplomacy, issues of security and proliferation, international mega-science projects, and trade policies, not to mention regional priorities like the Arctic, Africa, the Middle East, or East Asia.

The rise of the concept of science diplomacy

Science diplomacy thus is first and foremost a new umbrella term to characterize the role of science and technology in numerous policy fields that have an international, boundary-spanning, component. As a matter of fact, a number of examples and documents illustrate that considerations regarding science and technology (S&T) have played a role in international policymaking before (e.g. Neureiter & Turekian, 2012). For instance, policy instruments like bilateral science and technology agreements (STAs) have been used at least since the 1950s (Rüffin & Schreiterer, 2017). These STAs formed a global network of legal commitments long before any remarks on a strategic use of science diplomacy emerged.

However, the scope and number of S&T related policies have increased over time. For instance, we are witnessing the emergence and differentiation of agencies explicitly dedicated to matters of international science policymaking (Flink & Schreiterer, 2010; Rüffin, 2018). Several countries, including Germany, the UK, Switzerland, and Denmark, have established S&T outposts abroad in order to access new markets, buttress their innovation capacities, and to foster bilateral relationships. In addition, non-state actors like academies or research associations pursue their own objectives in terms of international science policy. They maintain offices overseas, conclude collaboration agreements, and some even establish joint research laboratories (e.g. the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique or the German Max-Planck Society). The idea of science diplomacy, then, provides a new, more strategic and—more or less—coherent framework to integrate existing instruments in international S&T policymaking. Actors use the concept to propel their own agenda regardless of policy field or research area.

From my point of view, there are two items on the current research agenda regarding science diplomacy: The aspirations for the meaningful, “optimal” use of the concept (Van Langenhove, 2017) and the scholarly reflection on its role in a broader context.

Future directions for science diplomacy

There are several well-known and often cited examples of successful science diplomacy. For instance, physicists were the trailblazers in establishing diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel in the 1950s. The Pugwash conferences provided venues for low-key exchanges between scientists and policymakers from Western and Eastern countries during the Cold War. International research organizations like the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, or the International Space Station, ISS, illustrate the opportunities that emerge if international partners join forces to pursue daring and high-quality big science research.

But aside from these famous examples, we know that the systematic implementation of the concept of science diplomacy faces serious challenges. Sometimes, scientists and officials from research organizations even are reluctant to use the term, stating that they would rather prefer to stay “under the radar” of politics. It is true that science diplomacy, as a type of track 2 diplomacy, always constitutes a balancing act between governmental interests and scientific autonomy. A strategic use of science diplomacy must take these concerns into account. Moreover, questions arise from the tension between competition versus collaboration of different actors.

In Europe, both the European Commission and a great number of Member States are engaging in science diplomacy, yet the relations between the different players, the division of labor as it where, often remains unclear. Propelling European science diplomacy thus means that the stakeholders must define the domains of (shared) responsibility, explore areas of common interests, and coordinate joint programs where advisable. Hence, scholars should investigate the subjects where science diplomacy can contribute to the peaceful and sustainable coexistence, increased scientific collaboration, and eased tensions between countries across the globe. But they should also continue to examine the limitations of the concept and how it might play into increasingly tough economic competitions and races for innovation. Overall, researchers should be aware that they contribute to the evolution of the concept by introducing new tools, structuring established instruments, and by identifying new applications.

Contemplating the nature of science diplomacy

However, it is important to remember that science diplomacy is only one expression of a broader “elusive transformation” of policymaking (Skolnikoff, 1993). We need to put science diplomacy into perspective by drawing connections to other mega-trends in science policy like the turn towards innovation and the increasing importance of the global challenges. This strand of research could include historical studies on the origins of the concept, analyses of coalition building, or in-depth case studies of how foreign affairs and S&T interact.

Luckily, the community of researchers engaging with science diplomacy—both in substantial and in reflexive ways—is growing. Already, scientists from many countries are contributing to this endeavor, and within Horizon 2020, there are a number of projects that advance the study and implementation of science diplomacy (e.g. EL-CSIDInsSciDE, and S4D4C).

After all, science diplomacy is a moving target and it will be interesting to watch which directions, trajectories and shapes the concept will take in the future.


Nicolas Rüffin is Research Fellow of the President’s Project Group at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. He joined the WZB in 2016, after receiving a master’s degree in science studies from the Humboldt-University of Berlin, and a bachelor’s degree in business psychology from the University of Bochum. Before moving to Berlin, he had worked as Programme Manager at Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, a joint initiative of companies and foundations for the advancement of education, science, and innovation in Germany. His research mainly focuses on issues of international science policy, the politics of intergovernmental big science projects, and science diplomacy.



Flink, T., & Schreiterer, U. (2010). Science diplomacy at the intersection of S&T policies and foreign affairs: towards a typology of national approaches. Science and Public Policy 37(9), 665–677.

Rüffin, N. (2018): Science and Innovation Diplomacy Agencies at the Nexus of Research, Economics, and Politics. EL-CSID Working Papers 10. Brussels: Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Rüffin, N., & Schreiterer, U. (2017): Science and Technology Agreements in the Toolbox of Science Diplomacy. Effective Instruments or Insignificant Add-ons?. EL-CSID Working Papers 6. Brussels: Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Skolnikoff, E. B. (1993). The Elusive Transformation: Science, Technology, and the Evolution of International Politics. Princeton, NJ: University Press.

Turekian, VC; Neureiter, NP (2012) Science and Diplomacy: The Past as Prologue. Science & Diplomacy. A Quarterly publication from the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. March, 2012;

Van Langenhove, L. (2017). Tools for an EU Science Diplomacy. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.


This entry was initially posted on Europe of Knowledge.

News, Calls and other Links #5/2018

Calls for Applications (Grants, Fellowships, scholarships and awards)

  • The Africa Research Excellence Fund (AREF)/The European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) make a joint call on Preparatory Fellowships. Deadline is the 1. February 2019.
  • Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) through DAAD calls highly qualified university graduates in all scientific fields; and graduates should have completed their final degree examination no longer than six years previously to apply for DAAD research grants. No deadline.
  • The Royal Academy of Engineering through invites the applications for UK-South Africa Industry-Academia Partnership Programme to build international links between industry and universities. Deadline 12. December 2018
  • Calls for PhD funding for international researchers from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. No deadline.
  • Call for Applications: Germany (DFG)/South Africa (NRF) on Partnership on International Research Training Group (IRTGs). Deadline is the 31. December 2018.
  • The UK Department for International Development (DFID), the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and Wellcome make a joint call for global health trials. Deadline is the 5. February 2018
  • The Collaboration for Evidence-Based Healthcare and Public Health in Africa (CEBHA+), calls for applications of doctoral scholarship in the area of Non-communicable diseases, with the aim to build long-term capacity and infrastructure for evidence-based healthcare and public health in Sub-Sahara Africa”. Deadline is 26. November 2018.
  • The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) invites interested grantees to submit proposals for the Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP) Programme. Deadline is 30. December 2018
  • The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Initiative invites applications for the NEF fellows. Deadline is 15. January 2019.
  • The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) calls for proposals of the German-African Innovation Incentive Award 2018. Deadline is 15. January 2019.



  • The Society of Social Studies of Science’s (4S) annual meeting 2019 will be in New Orleans, USA. Call for papers, closed panels and others opens 15. December 2018.


Interesting Reads 

  • The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency partners with IDRC to “deepen and sustain the work of the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI). The SGCI aims to build capacity of 15 science granting councils in sub-Sahara Africa; as well as provide funding to the participating councils for administering research calls.
  • A new book on a comprehensive study on “the next generation of scientists of scientists in Africa”, providing thorough insights into the funding landscapes, the career perspectives, publication opportunities, and other important issues for the young generations of scientists.
  • A new book on Research Universities in Africa “provides the best analysis to-date on the state of higher education in Africa, and discusses key policies to steer their positive transformation.”
  • Strengthening the EU partnership with Africa initiative leads to a new training alliance between EU and Africa through the Erasmus plus programme. More than 100,000 African students and academics will benefit from this new Africa-European deal
  • van der Merwe reviews the bibliometric study that was conducted on African science. The study shows that African researchers tend to produce high impact research when they receive international funding.