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.

Why research about scientific collaborations?

Global challenges are often said to be effectively tackled by knowledge-based societies. “Knowledge societies” became prominent during the late 1990s due to its use by Joseph Stiglitz and has influenced funding agencies and banks such as the World Bank. Therefore, scientific collaboration and their funding mechanisms with focus for example on health and energy, security and education on a global scale – as summarized in the Millennium Development Goals and their successors – become viable instruments for sustainable development.

However, research shows that science cooperation does not always work out well, especially when it is biased by persistent structural North-South asymmetries. During the process of collaborative research projects, such asymmetries affect the agenda-setting, financing, administration and the division of labour. Frederic Moyi Okwaro and Peter W. Geissler aptly summarize such inequalities for the life sciences:

“Collaborations in biomedical research are necessary and beneficial for scientists and institutions both from the north and the south. These partnerships, however occur, under conditions of gross economic and ethical inequality that serve both as a problem to be confronted and an opportunity for professional knowledge production. They are further compounded by dynamic and constantly evolving models of partnerships that both address and obscure inequalities, which nevertheless occasionally breed tension and conflicts.” (2015: 506)

Future blog entries will take these observations as a starting point and discuss elements of collaborative research agendas and funding initiatives within African-European science partnerships. I will draw examples mostly from the fields of infectious diseases/neglected tropical diseases and renewable energy for three reasons: both fields are among the core global issues of our times and require a high degree of scientific cooperation. At the same time, both disciplines are affected by economic competition for research results and production. Finally, both fields differ in age. While tropical medicine has a long history which roots in colonial empires, engineering and renewable energies are a rather new field of cooperation, facilitated by the need to find alternative sources of energy in countries with sometimes only rudimentary energy infrastructures. Moreover, both fields are influenced by different disciplinary cultures, although both belong to the realm of the natural sciences. These commonalities and differences should somehow affect the design of projects and the expectations of funders, intermediary institutions and researchers.

This does not mean that I want to leave out the social sciences and humanities. Interdisciplinary projects are becoming the norm in collaborative research, as a researcher from a British development funder just recently pointed out to me. The social sciences and humanities are included by large projects with their expertise to critically accompany, monitor and evaluate the implementation of activities such as the development and transfer of technologies or the planning of clinical trial studies. Moreover, public health and energy research and planning are essentially interdisciplinary undertakings, depending not only on the technicalities of biochemistry and engineering of efficient solar cells but also on the understanding of local social processes of communally deciding about priorities and their effective implementation. However, I would find it even more interesting – than simply noting interdisciplinary contributions of social sciences – to follow genuine collaborations in the social science or humanities, as they are often not very visible but equally influential. If there are resources, I will try to include such projects and their experiences with cooperation in my blog entries as well.

In my analysis of private and public funding instruments and aims of five West European countries and the EU I will shed light on the expectations and funding strategies for scientific collaboration as well as their changes during the last decades. So far, I have found few meta-studies and comparative project evaluations. Evaluators of single often rightly point to the time constrain and the lack of appropriate databases to compare experiences across research projects.

Over the course of my blog entries, I will not only present recent developments in the field of funding but also discuss some of the hypotheses and topics in the field of sociology of science in a comparative and explorative manner. I hope my approach will over time be used to inform scientists, funding agencies, policy-makers and a wider audience about the trends, patterns and the self-understanding in a growing field of global partnerships.

Don’t hesitate to join this discussion yourself through the comment function or by writing me an email. Over time, I will invite colleagues for guest articles and will try to share short interviews with you. Additionally, I will collect links to projects, events and call for papers and publish them as “News and Links”.