Science Diplomacy

With his red-trimmed suit, confident demeanor, and passionately fast speech, Alex Deghan had the kind of demeanor that could fill a room – likely honed by years of working in a variety of settings in law, the state department, research, and the private sector. Everyone’s eyes were glued as he recounted his meandering but incredibly successful career and continually came back to his main point: “we need to use science for diplomacy honestly, not fakely.”

Before we heard the above sentence, most of us in the room had pretty exclusively considered the intersections of science and diplomacy by the victories that diplomacy in the name of science had won – the Paris agreement for climate change, CERN, or the ISS, to name a few. At a university as international as Duke, the value of multiple perspectives and international collaborations to further science seemed obvious to most of us. This discussion flipped the conventional idea of science diplomacy on its head, and highlighted a second type of science diplomacy in which science was used in the service of diplomacy. Using the genuine and true exchange of science to address ideas from rural healthcare or theoretical physics, and leveraging this point of common ground to advance diplomatic goals. In Iran, for example, despite the long-running diplomatic tension, there is a massive amount of STEM student exchange and scientific collaboration with the US, and this has been leveraged towards a moderating force in the Iranian government.

Huang Fellows 2018 Poster Session Ralph Lawton“ width=

While the instinct of the researcher is always to put the science first, it is important to recognize that science doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The best science can and will affect people directly. Using science as a springboard for diplomacy enables both 1) the ability to turn science into action, creating nature preserves, policies, and coalitions, and 2) creating a starting point for action and discussion from a “neutral ground,” enabling better collaboration to further both geopolitical goals and scientific goals in the long run.

The big question overhanging the discussion though was regarding what to do about recent US anti-science political movements, to which the answer was unfortunately “I don’t know.” While internationally, science and the rigorous pursuit of the truth has been hailed as a starting point for diplomatic processes where different groups disagree, the weaponization of science and abandonment of an objective truth in the US has made it challenging to find our own common ground. This has sent ripples through the diplomatic tools that have been used to serve science, such as the US’s departure from the Paris agreement.

The answer to all of this seemed to be laid out for us though. It starts with the key point of using science honestly, and leveraging true exchange of knowledge to build bridges between people. From Mr. Deghan’s convoluted educational track, to his diplomatic experiences, it was clear that valuable perspectives are found in unusual places, and that you always have something to learn from the people around you. The concentrated effort to cultivate interdisciplinary, unique perspectives enables us to be better researchers, policymakers, and people who can use these skills to tackle problems we can’t even foresee.

“We need to use science for diplomacy honestly, not fakely.”

Ralph Lawton, Huang Fellow ’18

Ralph LawtonRalph is studying Economics and is on the pre-medical track. He is interested in the intersections of health and economics, in particular development.