A Call For Convergence: Science And Diplomacy In The Modern AgeIAP General Assembly,
LondonJanuary 12th, 2010
Let me start by wishing you all a very warm welcome to London. It is a great honour for us that so many scientists have come so far to celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the Royal Society. It’s also a great honour for the UK and the Royal Society to be hosting the General Assembly of the Inter-Academy Panel. I believe this year you will be discussing biodiversity – prescient given the recent events at Copenhagen and the global debate on climate change.
This IAP General Assembly has also seen the launch of the Royal Society’s report on science and diplomacy. This is a theme that I will return to. But the report itself is emblematic of how the Royal Society embodies some of Britain’s greatest qualities: its commitment to the advance of knowledge; its international engagement; the meritocratic basis of its membership; its involvement in the public realm.
Although an independent institution, the Royal Society’s history is also closely interwoven with that of the British Government. Since its foundation, the Royal Society has advised successive Governments by demonstrating the value of experimental science and providing the best current scientific thought to leaders and policy makers everywhere. Indeed, it is not only in science where the Royal Society has offered leadership; they appointed their first Foreign Secretary – to manage relations with science academies around the world – some sixty years before the creation of the post I hold.
There is little doubt that the UK is a country that takes science seriously. With just 1% of the world’s population we author 8% of the world’s scientific papers. From the discovery of the double helix to the invention of the World Wide Web, British science has been at the forefront of breakthroughs that affect the lives of everyone.
We also take diplomacy seriously. With 261 diplomatic missions in more than 160 countries, our foreign service gives us insight and influence the world over. From our permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, to our role in the Commonwealth or our membership of the EU, we are at the heart of a unique web of international networks and organisations.
The Royal Society has, since its foundation, been internationalist. A German - Henry Oldenburg – became editor of the society’s first journal in 1665. And it received papers from many of the world’s best minds – the Italian Marcello Malpighi and the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens to name but two.
The Society has long enjoyed strong ties to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed seventeen of my illustrious predecessors were fellows of the Royal Society. One of them Lord Salisbury – who, between 1878 and 1902, clocked up four stints as Foreign Secretary and three as Prime Minister - was such an enthusiastic amateur scientist that he built a laboratory at his house in Hatfield and spent his spare time conducting chemistry experiments.
Science and Diplomacy
On one occasion one of Lord Salisbury’s experiments nearly cost him his life. So perhaps he – or at least those around him – would have agreed that science and diplomacy are not the most natural of bedfellows. Indeed, the essence of scientific progress is not just transformational but disruptive – the focus is on great inventions and scientific breakthroughs. The essence of diplomacy, however, is to maintain order. And while science is in the business of establishing the truth it has long been perceived that diplomats are there to obscure it. Henry Wotton, the 17th century diplomat famously claimed that an Ambassador is “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”.
I am a politician not a scientist so I am not going to lecture you about science. But a bright spark in the Foreign Office has drawn my attention to something that I think is interesting.
The scientific revolution I learnt about at school was about the replacement of Newtonian mechanics with Quantum mechanics.
I wouldn’t want to hang everything on it – and perhaps it’s a bit of stretch - but if you think about it the world of international relations is undergoing a similarly profound change. International relations is experiencing its own “Quantum” shift:
First, international relations has long been premised on the idea of a ‘balance of power’. The international system tended towards equilibrium and self-correction, as states sought to balance each other’s economic or military strength; an echo of the world of Newtonian Mechanics. But today, a defining feature of our world is the tendency towards imbalance and asymmetry, mirroring the world of Quantum Mechanics. Think of the emergence of asymmetric tactics of terrorist organisations, leading not to a stable balance of opposing force, but chronic instability. Or of the damaging positive feedback loops that are driving runaway climate change and that built up unsustainable financial imbalances between emerging and existing powers.
Second, the actors involved in international relations today are no longer just nation-states: global NGOs, multi-national businesses, media and social networking sites, formal and informal international institutions all constrain and shape the preferences and actions of states. Science has gone through a similar shift. Newtonian mechanics was predicated on globes in orbit around each other. In quantum mechanics there is of course a more complex interplay of different forces.
Third, Newtonian science was modelled on discrete independent systems, while Quantum mechanics accepts that everything is inter-connected. It is therefore striking that interdependence is a defining feature of modern international relations. Foreign policy is no longer a game of risk or chess in two dimensions; it is more multi-dimensional. As a result, the world is more unpredictable and more uncertain. Every action does not have an equal and opposite reaction; sometimes it is the small interventions that catalyse major change. So in Pakistan, where I was this weekend, it was not the billions of dollars in US funding of the military that triggered the Pakistani military to take on home-grown terrorists; it was the product of public outrage at the images of a 17 year old girl being flogged by Taliban militants in Swat Valley. Foreign policy today is about managing interdependence and uncertainty, and finding the game-changing interventions that break the deadlock.
The old world of foreign policy – relations between states, sometimes strained, sometimes cooperative - remains. In Europe, I am pleased to say it has become bound up in the largest experiment in shared sovereignty that has ever been tried, in the European Union. But in the new world of foreign policy – ungoverned spaces, the diplomatic equivalent of black holes, and non state actors, the quarks of diplomacy – are the biggest challenge and in some ways the biggest change makers. And in this new world, more than any other that has gone before, I believe that science has a vital role to play in international relations and diplomacy – and equally, that diplomacy can assist scientific progress.
Science for diplomacy
Science can help us answer some of the foreign policy challenges we face.
First, scientific progress can achieve breakthroughs that diplomacy cannot match. The development of commercially viable Carbon Capture and Storage mechanisms, or advances in the technology for low-carbon vehicles can have a major impact on our ability to forge the green revolution we need to avoid climate change. Genetic improvement of crop plants could rescue many millions from the endless cycle of poverty, hunger and violence that infects so much of our world. And in areas such as cyber-security, bio-defence or early warning systems for natural disasters, it is science that holds the key to our future security.
Second, science can help forge consensus where there is political division. As Thomas Paine once said, “an army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot”. During the Cold War technologies to verify arms control agreements were a rare focus for joint working between the USA and USSR. In Europe, CERN helped rebuild links between nations - establishing the first post war contacts between German and Israeli scientists and keeping open relations between Western and Eastern Europe. Science can and should be used to break down barriers of the twenty-first century, particularly those between the Western and Muslim-majority countries. Projects like the new Synchrotron light-source in Jordan are leading the way, bringing together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and Pakistan to build a bright light-source for cutting-edge experiments in materials science and biology.
Third, is science’s power to shift debates and catalyse political action. This is critical if we are to protect and promote global public goods for future generations, as climate change illustrates. It was been the convergence of views within the scientific community that has set the political tone of the debate in recent years. Indeed the IPCC rightly won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its efforts to forge global consensus around the science. Although we did not secure from Copenhagen the ambitious, legally binding treaty that this Government and I am sure many of you wanted, no-one can deny how far the global debate has come in the last few years. And with an eye to the future, scientists and diplomats must continue to work together not just on climate but on resource scarcity more generally. I've talked previously about an impending resource crunch - with foreign policy increasingly shaped by shortages of energy, food and water. Scientific collaboration to establish a shared understanding of the risks and solutions will be critical to mobilising action and preventing a world of new tensions and stresses from emerging.
Diplomacy for Science
Just as science can support diplomacy, so too must diplomacy support science.
The most ambitious, game-changing scientific innovations increasingly require collaboration across disciplinary and territorial borders. For example, the Human Genome Project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and the Large Hadron Collider are projects that require huge up-front investments in infrastructure that are beyond the budget of any one country. Even on a smaller scale, contract negotiations, intellectual property agreements or visa regulations require diplomatic assistance.
Of course, competition between countries remains and we need to strengthen national science and innovation system. But increasingly, we need to facilitate networks that enable scientific collaboration across countries in the pursuit of shared goals. That is the significance of scientific programmes of the European Union. It is also why the UK has regular meetings on science and innovation with Brazil, China, India, Russia, South Africa and South Korea.
In the 21st century, developments in neuroscience, chemical and biological weapons, and cybertechnology will pose new risks. Diplomacy will therefore have a critical role in establishing rules, norms and governance structures to manage such risks.
I want to end with a few words about British efforts to support science diplomacy and international collaboration. Because after more than a decade of unprecedented investment, I am proud to say that UK is rated first or second in the world at research in many disciplines. Our universities attract many of the best and brightest from overseas. Our world class science base has brought companies from Fujitsu Telecoms to Boeing or IBM to our shores. In a wide range of fields – from medicine to engineering or biotechnology – our scientific research is amongst the best in the world.
But to make the most of Britain’s strength and to exploit the benefits of global science we need a strong programme of action abroad.
That is the significance of the Science and Innovation Network, initiated by the FCO nine years ago. With around ninety staff in forty Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates around the world, the network maps out and catalyses new collaborations between the top scientists in the UK and overseas. This gives our researchers access to the best science and the best facilities globally – such as the Japanese Earth Simulator, where a deal brokered by the Science and Innovation Network has meant UK climate research science has been 1-2 years ahead of where it would have been. Or in the US, where earlier this year the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine invested $36M in a joint collaboration with the UK Medical Research Council following our work with them over the previous 5 years.
Last year I appointed a Chief Scientific Adviser to the FCO, Professor David Clary, and scientific diplomacy will be a significant component of his work, using the Science and Innovation Network and other diplomats in our mission across the world.
The British Council – for its part – has many important scientific initiatives including its programme for bringing together young researchers from the UK and other countries to promote the creative exchange of ideas through short conferences.
Last but not least, the Royal Society. I want to pay tribute to Martin Rees and his staff for the enormous contribution they have made to science diplomacy. Whether through the establishment – during the UK’s G8 Presidency in 2005 – of regular meetings between the G8+5 Science Academies which helped shift the political debate on climate change; or last June’s conference on New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy, this institution has played a critical role in bridging the gap between the two disciplines in recent years. And I am sure that the establishment of the Science Policy Centre – as part of the 350th Anniversary celebrations – will further strengthen the voice of science in UK, European and international politics.
It is with these two disciplines – science and politics – that I want to end. Because the future of the planet depends above all on politics. But I also know that the lives of millions depend on developments in the physical and natural sciences. Politics and science need to come closer together – not for politics to smother science, but instead to be informed by its potential.
The frustrations of the climate change talks show how far we have to go. Here the science is overwhelming. It really is a consensus. The need is urgent. But the politics is blocked. Despite all the campaigns and all the effort, we do not yet have the global treaty on emissions reductions that the world desperately needs. And if we cannot find a way to cooperate to ensure our own safety and security, then our descendants will look back and wonder whether we really had learned the lessons of history.
My closing thought is therefore this. The scientific world is becoming interdisciplinary. But the biggest inter-disciplinary leap we need is across the boundaries of politics and science. We need you. On resource conflicts, global inequality, nuclear security and counter terrorism, science is our ally. I hope this anniversary opens eyes not just to how far science has come, but what we can do together in the future.