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Twelve Months of COVID-19: Shaping the Next Era of Science Diplomacy

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“Never before in living memory have the connections between our scientific world and our social world been quite so stark as they are today.”

Dr. Alondra Nelson, Deputy Director-designate for Science and Society, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy1

COVID-19 is the first global crisis that affects virtually every person on the planet at the same time. The pandemic has been a stress test for the relationship between science and diplomacy,2 triggering a reckoning of how transnational crises of planetary scale—infectious diseases, the looming climate crisis, biodiversity collapse—interlink humanity’s destiny. Despite the predictability of an existential threat of this nature, most countries were insufficiently prepared. Their responses exposed a profound disconnect between the scientific and foreign policy domains3 and underscore the urgency of bringing science from the margins to the center of global policy.

While international research collaboration on SARS-CoV-2 thrived and achieved unprecedented breakthroughs at record speed, many world leaders ignored scientific recommendations and retreated from multilateral coordination, resulting in fragmented measures that often contradicted those of neighboring nations. These governmental responses manifested the inadequacy of current international science-policy interface structures to address the challenges facing humanity and the planet. With effective vaccines now available, the end of the pandemic is in sight, but vaccine diplomacy is being revealed as a battle for international leadership and geopolitical influence,4 rather than the global cooperation and solidarity this moment calls for.

A crucial task before us, as we enter the next phase of the pandemic, is to capture the lessons from this extraordinary chapter in history to prevent crises of such magnitude in the future, and to rebuild adaptive and resilient systems that prevent the next health and environmental disasters. This special issue of Science & Diplomacy examines the science diplomacy dimensions of the pandemic from different regions, stakeholders, and sectors, as they relate to preparedness, management, and recovery. Articles exploring approaches in the Americas, Europe, South Asia, the Arab region, and Africa all coincide on the need to build, restore, or strengthen national, regional, and global science-policy structures. For example, Dalal Najib describes the immense challenges facing Arab countries in the post-COVID recovery and the need for a regional advisory body to better coordinate policy actions.5 Phyllis Kalele and Stanley Maphosa take stock of the COVID-19 response on the African continent, noting that only half of the 54 countries in Africa have national academies of science, and many of those lack the resources and recognition to adequately advise their governments.6

Many were surprised to watch countries with some of the most robust systems and structures of government science advice struggle to contain the virus. Lemay et al. argue that one of the reasons may be the disconnect between domestic and foreign science policy. As governments went into crisis mode, science attaché networks were underutilized.7 Science attachés were forced to pivot away from their regular duties to support repatriation efforts of stranded country nationals or advise colleagues on the import and export of COVID-19 medical technologies. The logistical disruptions and reorientation of work interfered with communication among science attachés from different countries in the same region, a missed opportunity for better regional coordination and optimization of resources.

Three pieces focus on the role of higher education institutions as engines of global collaboration for pandemic response and recovery. Alice Gast calls for universities to augment their nations’ foreign policy with a synergistic apolitical approach of their own, given their ability to transcend political barriers through academic collaborations that promote transboundary cooperation.8 Lyons et al. suggest creating new science diplomacy mechanisms to fill what they call the “orphan space” at the intersection of academia, government, science, and international engagement.9 Lee et al. show how it is in every high-income country’s national interest to invest in research and capacity development in low- and middle-income countries.10 Similarly, tackling global problems at the local level is how Schneider et al. propose to address the so-called “infodemic” of misinformation that has eroded trust in science and could jeopardize the rollout of the vaccines. By engaging with local communities, and not just disseminating information from centralized institutions, scientists can regain society’s trust.11

Authors note that in most countries, the scientific and diplomatic communities are largely siloed educationally and professionally, with different cultures, values, skill sets, and career paths.12 Here universities can play a key role by formally introducing science diplomacy in STEM and international relations curricula to build the necessary bridges between the two communities.13 A growing number of governments and diplomatic academies are also embedding scientific and technological expertise in the foreign service,14 but academic, legal, administrative, and cultural barriers still impede bidirectional engagement between the scientific and diplomatic spheres in many countries. Governments must foster the demand for science diplomacy by establishing mechanisms such as fellowship programs, pairing schemes, and secondments to immerse scientific experts in foreign ministries and multilateral bodies.

The piece by Sholts et al. on the history and future of the Smithsonian Institution highlights the often neglected colonialist and imperialist roots of historical scientific cooperation episodes driven by the Global North now being reframed as examples of science diplomacy.15 Robert Swap adds that effective science diplomacy is based not only on sharing knowledge, but cultivating cross-cultural and interpersonal skills that build trust over time and address the legacies and currently lived realities of racial, social, and environmental injustice in order to foster more equal international partnerships.16

One baseline challenge noted in several pieces is the unfamiliarity of many stakeholders with science diplomacy as a concept and as a tool. As there is neither a commonly agreed-upon definition nor a consensus on its objectives, actors, instruments, and activities, the term is neither universally embraced nor consistently used.17 Kerri-Ann Jones offers an explanation: science diplomacy is still evolving out of two very well-established fields and is struggling to establish its distinct identity.18 Furthermore, the narrative has come under intense academic scrutiny19 in recent years as a focus on its cooperative logic has led to the neglect of its competitive dimensions, which are increasingly important given that commercially-oriented scientific and technological breakthroughs can give particular nation-states an economic edge over others.

Indeed, rapid advancements in frontier research and innovation can help unify nations toward collective actions to achieve the United Nations’ 2030 agenda, but the convergence of some of these technologies–artificial intelligence, quantum computing, synthetic biology, gene editing or climate-altering technologies–with political and societal issues can generate enormous risks and challenges for democracy and multilateral governance. As these technologies become strategic sovereign assets and critical infrastructure for national security, they can also amplify social inequalities, perpetuate racial and gender biases, and deepen geopolitical divides.20 To remain relevant and fulfill its potential to address global challenges, the institutional architecture of science diplomacy will need to adapt to the scale and speed of the transformations ahead with a whole-of-society approach. Beyond the policy and academic communities, other actors including technological and pharmaceutical companies, international scientific societies, and philanthropic individuals and organizations,21 have played a pivotal role in addressing COVID-19 and will  have an influential role in strengthening science diplomacy efforts moving forward.

While COVID-19 discoveries have been the top priority of the global scientific community, let us not forget how issues pertaining to biodiversity loss, climate change, land use, food security, ocean health, and energy have persisted, as noted by Muhammad Adeel and other authors.22 2020 tied for warmest year on record.23 A record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season and the fires ravaging Australia, California, and the Amazon were a reminder of the inextricable links between human and planetary health. As Lemery et al. put it, “the pandemic has served as a palpable admonishment of our custodianship of the commons.”24

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the trajectory of the interrelated global crises upon us. Several articles in this special issue touch upon the Overton window, a name for the idea that policy proposals that are unthinkable and intractable in one moment (such as universal basic income, emergency policies to house the homeless, and the provision of free internet to support remote learning) can swiftly become not only acceptable, but even inevitable.25 The historic mobilization of resources, public policy measures, and behavioral change during the pandemic can pave the way for more sustained engagement between the scientific and policy spheres for bigger crises, such as climate change. Preventing and responding to the next global crisis will require building creative coalitions among a broader range of actors and placing science, health, climate, and the environment at the heart of the multilateral system. Building (or repairing) the bridges between science and diplomacy will allow us to reframe our relationship with each other and with the planet, as the impact of transboundary threats to health and environment anywhere are felt everywhere. This point is exemplified by the recent legal ruling in France that overturned a deportation order against a man from Bangladesh with severe asthma, as the dangerous air pollution in his country of origin is a threat to his life should he return.26

Perhaps the most salient lesson from the analyses, reflections, and proposals presented in this collection is that science diplomacy starts at home: if nations do not build a strong foundation for science-informed policy, their science diplomacy strategy will not stand on solid ground. That said, given that the pandemic will not be over until outbreaks are under control in the “Majority World” and not just in the Global North, addressing global challenges will require aligning national and global interests if we want to ensure the benefits of science diplomacy do not end at home.

Throughout history, pandemics have forced a break with the past and a re-imagining of a new world.27 Opening such a portal to a more just society and sustainable planet needs synchronized unlocking by multiple key holders working in unison towards a common purpose. We hope this special issue inspires you to expand your view of what is possible and necessary to achieve the future we all want.


  1. Alondra Nelson, “Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society Dr. Alondra Nelson in Wilmington, Delaware,” January 16, 2021,
  2. Marga Gual Soler and Tolullah Oni, “Here’s how ‘science diplomacy’ can help us contain COVID-19,” World Economic Forum, May 5, 2020,
  3. Bill Gates, “The next outbreak? We’re not ready,” TED2015, March 2015,
  4. Abigail Ng, “Developing nations are first in line for China’s Covid vaccines. Analysts question Beijing’s intent,” CNBC, December 9, 2020,
  5. Dalal Najib, “COVID-19 and the Arab World – Between a Rock and Hard Place,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  6. Phyllis Kalele and Stanley Maphosa, “Connecting the Dots: The Role of African National Academies of Science in Informing the COVID-19 Response,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,…
  7. Jean Lemay, Jean Christophe Mauduit, and Maxime Van Cauter, “Science Attachés in a Post-COVID-19 World: Taking Stock of the Crisis,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  8. Alice Gast, “A Foreign Policy for Universities: Science Diplomacy as Part of a Strategy,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  9. Elizabeth Lyons, Karen Lips, and Esther Obonyo, “Catalyzing U.S. Higher Education to Build a Better Post-Pandemic Future through Science Diplomacy,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  10. Eric Lee, Samantha Alvis, Brian Bingham, Karen Fowle, Ticora V. Jones, Anjali Kumar, Margaret Linak, Brent Wells, and Cameron Bess, “Higher Education Institutions and Science Networks: Unique International Platforms for Accelerated Responses to Future Global Shocks,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  11. Victoria Schneider, Benjamin Fait, Irene Duba, Frances Marks, and Alex Payne, “Building the Base: Why a More Diverse, Communication-Savvy Scientific Workforce is the Key to Addressing Future Catastrophes,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  12. Lorenzo Melchor, “What is a Science Diplomat?” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 15, issue 3 (2020): 409-423,
  13. Mandë Holford and Rodney W. Nichols, “The Challenge of Building Science Diplomacy Capabilities for Early Career Academic Investigators,” Science & Diplomacy 6, no. 2, January 29, 2018, ; Jean-Christophe Mauduit and Marga Gual Soler, “Building a Science Diplomacy Curriculum,” Frontiers in Education 5, 138, August 11, 2020,
  14. Nick Pyenson and Alex Dehgan, “We Need More Scientists in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps,” Scientific American, November 16, 2020,
  15. Sabrina Sholts, Oris Sanjur, Linette Dutari, and Nick Pyenson, “The Past, Present, and Future of Science Diplomacy at the Smithsonian,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021, ; Charlotte Rungius and Tim Flink, “Romancing science for global solutions: on narratives and interpretative schemas of science diplomacy,” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 7, 12 (2020),
  16. Bob Swap, “Growing Our Own Timber: Perspectives and Experiences from the Field on Training the Next Generation of Science Diplomats,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  17. Simone Turchetti, Matthew Adamson, Giulia Rispoli, Doubravka Olšáková, and Sam Robinson, “Just Needham to Nixon? On Writing the History of “Science Diplomacy” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 50, 4 (2020): 323–339,
  18. Kerri-Ann Jones, “Time to Rebuild,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  19. Tim Flink, “The Sensationalist Discourse of Science Diplomacy: A Critical Reflection,” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 15, issue 3 (2020): 359-370,
  20.  Marga Gual Soler, “The Future of Science Diplomacy,” Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA), (2020),…
  21. Will Yakowicz, “How Bill Gates, Jack Ma And 11 Other Billionaires Are Reacting To The Coronavirus Pandemic,” Forbes, March 15, 2020,
  22. Muhammad Adeel, “Food Security in a Post-COVID-19 World: Regulatory Perspectives for Agricultural Biotechnology,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  23. NASA, 2020 Tied for Warmest Year on Record, NASA Analysis Shows, January 15, 2021,
  24. Jay Lemery, Hanna Linstadt, Rosemary Rochford, and Cecilia Sorensen, “We Need to Train Climate Doctors,” Science & Diplomacy 10, January 22, 2021,
  25. Tolullah Oni, “Coronavirus (COVID-19)-induced re-imagination: 7 things we knew, but “could do nothing about”…until we could…and did,” Next Einstein Forum, April 20, 2020, ; Mandë Holford and Ruth Morgan, “4 ways science should transform after COVID-19,” World Economic Forum Agenda, June 17, 2020,
  26. Jon Henley, “Man saved from deportation after pollution plea in French legal ‘first,’” The Guardian, January 12, 2021,
  27. Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020


Dr. Marga Gual Soler is a molecular biologist and the founder of SciDipGLOBAL and a member of UNAM academic program “Chair in Science Diplomacy and Scientific Heritage.” She is a member of the S4D4C project, advisor to the European Union-Horizon 2020 Science Diplomacy Cluster, visiting professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Previously she was a senior project director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and a high-level advisor to the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas. She holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Cell Biology from the University of Queensland in Australia.

Dr. Mandë Holford is an associate professor in Chemistry at Hunter College and CUNY-Graduate Center, with scientific appointments at The American Museum of Natural History and Weill Cornell Medicine. Her research examines venoms and venomous animals as agents of change and innovation in evolution and in manipulating cellular physiology in pain and cancer. She co-founded Killer Snails, LLC, an award-winning EdTech company. She has been named a 2020 Sustainability Pioneer by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Breakthrough Women in Science by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and NPR’s Science Friday, a Wings WorldQuest Women of Discovery fellow, and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. Her Ph.D. is from The Rockefeller University, USA.

Dr. Tolullah Oni is a public health physician and urban epidemiologist, principal of Oni et al. and the founder of UrbanBetter. She is an honorary associate professor and lead of the Research Initiative for Cities Health and Equity (RICHE) group at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and a clinical senior research associate/joint lead of the Global Health Research Group at the University of Cambridge MRC Epidemiology Unit, UK. She is a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences, past co-chair of the Global Young Academy and the South African Young Academy of Science, a 2020 Next Generation Foresight Practitioner fellow, and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum (WEF). She holds a doctorate in Epidemiology from Imperial College London, UK.

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