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publish date : 25 Saturday January 2014      17:42

Science Diplomacy can pave the way between Iran and US

Interview By Azadeh Eftekhari

Farhikhtegan Daily- Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani underscores the need for “scientific diplomacy” and calls on the Iranian scientific elites to promote the country’s objectives at the international level. Rouhani pointed to Iran’s developments following the June presidential election and noted, “The Administration of Prudence and Hope seeks constructive interaction with the world and it is steadfast in [upholding] this motto.”“The security apparatus, including the Ministry of Intelligence, should pave the way for scientific diplomacy and trust senior university professors and students,” said Rouhani in a speech at the University of Tehran in September. But what is Science diplomacy. Robert Albro   Vice-President of the Public Diplomacy Council in Washington answers this question.

 Q. Dr.Albro, would you mind please tell me  what is science diplomacy?       

 A. There is no single definition of science diplomacy. We may speak of “science in diplomacy,” or the ways that science can help to identify and to address pressing public policy problems. We could also refer to “diplomacy for science,” when the science community is given access to the resources of multiple nation-states as a basis for collaborative projects of science. Very generally there is also “science for diplomacy,” the typical meaning of science diplomacy, which refers to circumstances where scientific cooperation is at the same time a basis for previously absent political cooperation, typically between nation-states. This, in turn, should be distinguished from “international scientific cooperation,” which takes place with increasing frequency but does not formally or intentionally incorporate diplomatic goals for policy change and international politics as part of its work. Put another way, science diplomacy is the application of international scientific cooperation motivated by a desire to build or to enhance relationships between societies or countries.

Q. Which countries are the forerunner in science diplomacy and what is its role in generating wealth?

A. Science diplomacy is a relatively recent development, becoming notable largely in the twentieth century. The possibilities for science diplomacy have increased with the increase of international scientific cooperation, including the bilateral, multilateral and international organizations and frameworks devoted to the activities of science. One high point in this process was the founding of the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1931. Another landmark was the creation of UN-based multilateral organizations devoted to science, such as UNESCO (founded in 1946). Finally, we might point to the development of such international scientific research facilities as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN), founded in 1954 and which hosts approximately 10,000 visiting scientists and engineers from 608 academic and research institutions and 113 countries worldwide.

 Scientific cooperation between the US and the USSR occurred throughout the Cold War, with important diplomatic results. This included co-development of the polio vaccine in the 1950s, joint Apollo-Soyuz space missions in the 1970s and, most importantly, regular communication between US and Soviet nuclear scientists. The latter paved the way for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991, both of which helped to diminish the threat of nuclear war. More recent has been ongoing cooperation between the US and Russia, as well as Europe, Japan and Canada, on construction and use of the International Space Station, the first module for which was launched in 1998.

 Today much of the work of particle physics is collaborative and highly international, largely carried out at facilities with large particle accelerators like CERN, Fermilab in the US, or the KEK laboratory in Japan. More recently, SESAME, a synchrotron laboratory begun in 2002 and located near Amman, Jordan, brings together nine participating countries from the Middle East, representing an unprecedented opportunity for scientific collaboration and for countries across the Middle East to share scientific information. As science diplomacy becomes an increasingly common feature of international scientific cooperation, it promises to make more internationally available the kinds of new technologies and innovations with economic potential, such as the World Wide Web invented at CERN in 1990, which increasingly require significant scientific research and development.

Q. Where is science diplomacy’s place in international relations?

A. Science diplomacy is not internationally institutionalized enough for us to refer to a particular well-defined place for science diplomacy, as part of international diplomacy and international relations more broadly. Science diplomacy, however, continues to play a role in international affairs. It also appears to be an increasingly important dimension of the work of science, as an extension of the tremendous increase in international scientific cooperation over the previous several decades. National foreign policy strategies typically now include an explicit science diplomacy dimension. In the US the White House, Department of State, and US Agency for International Development all have science and technology advisory offices, each of which includes a global outreach component and a variety of programs for international science and technology cooperation, such as the Science Envoys program established in 2009.

The US is not alone in having formally incorporated science diplomacy into its foreign policy objectives. In recent years, Brazil, for example, established its Scientific Mobility program. This program is intended to send up to 100,000 Brazilian science students to study abroad in world class universities in key fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Science diplomacy, in short, is an area of growing importance in foreign affairs globally.

 At the same time, we should also underscore that science diplomacy is not restricted to activities between governments. It is also a growing feature of the collaborative nature of science globally, and so, a dimension of non-governmental cooperation among, for example, institutions of higher education. US-based universities now have more of a global footprint while opening up novel opportunities for international engagement using new technologies such as massive open online courses (MOOCS). In addition, scientists are increasingly dedicated to addressing challenging and large-scale problems that are global in scope, such as climate change, pandemics, industrial pollution, global fisheries, and many other questions, which cross geopolitical boundaries and require international cooperation among scientists and governments, or which are too expensive for individual laboratories to pursue alone.

Q. How can science diplomacy pave the way for political diplomacy?

A. Conventionally, science diplomacy is understood to be of value in a geopolitical environment of estrangement between nation-states, where formal diplomatic relations are lacking and where the pursuit of direct political relationships is difficult or impossible, often for reasons of domestic politics in one or both countries. In such cases, as with the US and USSR during the Cold War – where physicists regularly exchanged information, attended the same conferences, and even collaborated in their work – science diplomacy functions as a variety of third-track diplomacy. This facilitates the maintenance of communication among nations during periods of the lack of formal relations or hostility.

Science, in all of its diversity, can be an effective basis for collaboration across otherwise hard-to-cross political boundaries because the methods, discourse, ethics, and results of science are not specific to a particular people or nation, are typically non-political, and shared in common by scientists everywhere. Given the scientific value of transparency and of the free circulation of information, regardless of location, scientists often share common assumptions, goals, problems, and so, communicational frames that politicians or more traditional diplomats do not.

The recent successful search for the Higgs-Boson particle at CERN, which involved scientists of diverse national backgrounds, was a global effort. The successful cooperation among scientists focused on global problems that require international cooperation can lead to greater political cooperation around politically more intractable issues, such as climate change. The collaborative and international work of scientists relating to persistent transboundary global problems typically produces the initial conceptual framework for multilateral policy making focused on the same problem, and so, leads to shared political problem-solving.

Q. How can science diplomacy remove the obstacles between countries that don’t have good relations with each other, such as Iran and the US?

A. Both the US Department of State and the Iranian government, as well as many scientists in the two countries, currently coincide in the view that science-based engagement is a key basis for addressing global problems and improving mutual understanding. Co-authorship in scientific journals involving US and Iranian scientists has steadily increased since the early 2000s. Since 1979 there have been a series of US-Iranian collaborations in the medical and health sciences. Since the turn of the 21st century, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the US, a non-governmental organization, has maintained a program intended to promote engagement between US and Iranian scholars and scientists around such issues as earthquake science and food-borne diseases, among others. Joint planning meetings, workshops, individual exchanges, and pilot programs, have involved more than five hundred scientists from over eighty institutions in the US and Iran.

Neuroscience, community health, and bioethics are other areas that have seen significant and ongoing collaboration between Iranian and US scientists in recent years. American bioethicists and biomedical researchers have spoken at conferences in Iran, Iranian universities, and research institutes, while Iranian counterparts have visited and lectured at US universities and research institutions. This has helped to make bioethics a topic for scientific exchange between the two countries. Researchers in the US and Iran face the same problems of bioethics, from confronting pandemics, to stem cell research, access to basic healthcare, addressing high-risk behaviors, and other questions. Jointly addressing these issues promotes dialogue, also facilitated by common international policy frameworks, reflecting shared values about the sanctity of life, responsibility toward vulnerable populations, and imperative to do no harm.

The established precedent of cooperation and collaboration between the US and Iran in bioethics and other scientific fields, together with the established history of successful science diplomacy between the US and USSR during the Cold War around nuclear arms control, serve as powerful examples of ongoing lines of scientific communication, shared values, and global commitments, which can promote more beneficial bilateral political outcomes, going forward. Since 2013, cooperation between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the government of Iran, in the form of last year’s joint Cooperation Framework and other shared efforts, have helped establish necessary trust, scientific agreement about facts on the ground, and so, legitimacy around talks between the US, Iran and the European Union, which has recently paving the way for historically important diplomatic breakthroughs with regard to Iran’s nuclear development and toward the lifting of international economic sanctions upon Iran.

Q. How about the recent nuclear deal in Geneva that includes the US allocating some funds for improving scholarship for Iranian students?

A. At present thousands of Iranian students are coming to the US annually – and the number is growing – to study math and science in US universities. The continued fact of sanctions creates significant problems for Iranian students, who lack reliable access to financial resources while in the US, since they are unable use Iranian banks. As part of last November’s agreement, the US agreed to allow direct channels between Iranian students in the US and Iranian banks, making it much easier to pay tuition fees and living expenses. In 1979 over 50,000 Iranian students were studying in the US, more than from any other country. If this number declined considerably since the 1979 Revolution, it has been steadily rising of late. If the easing of sanctions continues to make it easier for Iranian students to study in the US, their numbers will rise more rapidly, and student exchange will become an increasingly important dimension of science diplomacy among the two countries.  

Q. With Rouhani in office and the Geneva deal, how do you evaluate the role of the Iranian elite and students in the US as Iran Science ambassadors?

A. One of the critical obstacles to overcome in reestablishing trust and regular diplomatic relations between two countries that have maintained hostilities or had little interaction with one another over an extended period is that the political establishments of both often maintain distorted or unrealistic images of each other. One way to overcome entrenched unconstructive perceptions is for increased two-way flow of students through exchange. Iranian students who spend time in the US can take their more nuanced and complex experiences of US society back to Iran, in ways that help both countries to break through negative stereotypes they maintain about each other. At the same time, these students will be able to activate the social networks established as students with US and other international students, which will become the future basis for more scientific collaboration. These students, therefore, can play an important bridging function, as the US and Iran continue to take steps to normalize their relationship. 

Q. Over the last 34 years exchange of professors and students between Iran and US was unilateral (just Iranians went to the US). Since you have extensive knowledge of universities and society in US, do you think with recent developments in Iran, there is a chance for more bilateral exchange?

A. In short, yes. As part of its response to the events of the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration has used both science and technology to try to advance diplomacy and development in countries of the Middle East, with Pakistan, and other countries with which the US has had a contentious relationship over time. In president Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, he called for greater partnering between US scientists and scientists in Muslim-majority countries, around science, technology, and innovation-building. This has to be a reciprocal undertaking and cannot simply be unilateral. The US Department of State should work to include Iran on the list of countries participating in the US Science Envoys program. Non-governmental organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Science, and National Institutes of Health, have so far played leading roles in promoting further scientific exchange between the Iran and the US. Hopefully, such efforts will continue and expand in scope. 

Q. And are you and colleagues interested in working in Iran universities?

A. Iran has a long and distinguished history of advancement in the sciences, particularly in the areas of health and medical sciences. In the ninth century, the Persian Ali Ibn Rabban Tabari wrote the first medical encyclopedia. In the tenth and eleventh centuries Avicenna helped to establish the foundations for modern medical science. Current research at such institutions as Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences in Tehran and elsewhere continue to advance these fields. There is no doubt that health scientists in the US would welcome opportunities to expand cooperation with their Iranian counterparts. As an anthropologist, my own background as a social scientist is very different. But, colleagues based in the US who are anthropologists of Iran maintain collegial relations with their Iranian colleagues, although the development of anthropology in Iran is still in an early stage and quite recent. Increasing interaction between US and Iranian anthropology, perhaps through such opportunities as the World Council of Anthropological Associations and the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, is something I certainly look forward to.

Keywords : diplomacy - iran
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