Scientists can teach us how to work across borders to solve global problems. Image: REUTERS/Joseph Campbell
Scientists can teach us how to work across borders to solve global problems. Image: REUTERS/Joseph Campbell

Here’s how ‘science diplomacy’ can help us contain COVID-19

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  • 'Science diplomacy', meaning international cooperation with science at its core, is the key to overcoming COVID-19.

  • Science paired with diplomacy can bring about unprecedented global change, as shown by the recovery of the ozone layer.

  • Building bridges between science and policy, and between countries, will help us solve the problems of today and tomorrow.
  • In 1987, an improbable collaboration between scientists and diplomats led to a global ban on chemicals that were damaging our planet’s protective ozone layer. Harmful radiation was passing through the growing hole in this ozone shield, threatening life on the planet. In response, countries around the world agreed on the groundbreaking Montreal Protocol, which ended the use of ozone-depleting substances in cars, fridges and air conditioners. By 2018, the ozone layer was on track to recover completely, making this one of the most successful diplomatic agreements in history.

    Decades later, humanity is facing another common threat: the COVID-19 pandemic. But this time, cooperation between governments and international institutions is at an all-time low. Many countries are responding to the pandemic with sweeping unilateral actions and belligerent, threatening language. But to overcome this crisis, we need international collaboration, strong relationships and effective diplomacy. To see how powerful such global ties can be, governments need only look to scientists.

    Scientists have long formed relationships with colleagues across the globe, even when their governments didn’t get along. Countries are increasingly recognising the diplomatic value of such cross-border scientific projects and networks, known as “science diplomacy”. These international networks can re-establish trust and diffuse tensions when political relations are strained.

    After World War II devastated Europe, the European Nuclear Research Laboratory (CERN) encouraged post-war contact between German and Israeli physicists. During the Cold War, space cooperation enabled symbolic relationships between American and Soviet astronauts in orbit that were not possible on Earth. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, a milestone for environmental protection, dedicated the last unexplored continent to science and peace. In 2015, long-standing cooperation between U.S and Cuban scientists paved the way for re-opening diplomatic channels between the two countries after nearly six decades of political strain. Today, the SESAME particle accelerator in Jordan is bringing together countries in the Middle East.

    These projects show the power of science diplomacy. Scientists have worked across political barriers, and ultimately, helped overcome them. As the new coronavirus spreads, such efforts are more vital than ever.

    Map of international scientific collaboration 2008-2012
    Credit: Olivier Beauchesne

    In recent years, outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 (swine flu), MERS and Ebola were contained through rapid multilateral action. However, the cross-border response to COVID-19 has been less effective. There has been friction both within international organizations, and between governments and global bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

    Under the legally binding International Health Regulations of 2005, all countries must develop capacities to prevent, detect, report and respond to public health emergencies. Many have not had the resources to do this. Some have been unable to secure medical supplies due to sanctions that block the required bank transactions. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a global ceasefire and rolling back of sanctions, saying they are worsening the health risk for millions of people.

    To be clear, scientific projects should not have political goals, nor can they replace diplomatic and peace-building efforts. Vaccination programmes, for example, have sometimes brought about a short-term cessation of hostilities to allow medical teams to carry out their work. But help during health crises and other disasters does not necessarily lead to lasting peace. After the crisis, hostilities often resume.

    Indeed, many scientific achievements rely on political cooperation to be fully effective. A WHO-led campaign to vaccinate the world’s population led to the eradication of smallpox. If a single nation had chosen not to vaccinate its people, it would have endangered the entire world. Scientists have played a crucial advisory role in the COVID-19 crisis, informing governments, anticipating risks and ensuring research findings guide policy. But many countries lack such advisory systems, making it harder for them to form evidence-based decisions. 

    The answer is for governments to actively integrate science into their domestic and foreign policy agendas. The Swiss foreign ministry recently launched a public-private foundation to encourage science diplomacy. For example, it supports efforts to study and protect corals in the Red Sea, bringing together a range of countries in the region. France and Denmark appointed ambassadors to the tech industry, marking a new era for digital diplomacy and governance. Chile and South Africa are engaged in astronomy diplomacy to build soft power through space cooperation. There are many more initiatives around the world that promote such ties.

    Another way to boost science and technology diplomacy is to empower the next generation of leaders. In March, young scientists around the world called for solidarity and international action to stop the spread of COVID-19, including better exchange of information. They gave practical recommendations for researchers, such as sharing experiences, communicating complex facts to the public in clear and simple terms, and translating scientific texts into local languages. The networks and trust created by communities such as the Young Global Leaders can enable quick action when a crisis hits.

    We are immersed in the biggest real-time science lesson the world has ever seen. Scientists are more visible and valued by politicians and the public than ever. Molecular biology terms like DNA, RNA or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) have gone mainstream. Mathematical concepts of linear, exponential and logarithmic growth are explained on prime time television. Public health and epidemiological concepts like flattening the curve, physical distancing and herd immunity are trending on social media.

    This is a golden opportunity for scientists to engage with the public. We have an urgent responsibility to pass on our knowledge and expertise, but also our values. Science relies on openness, transparency and international collaboration. Promoting these values can pull down divisions and bring about the change we need to solve the problems of today and tomorrow.

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