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While many global problems ranging from pandemics to environmental degradation are rooted in science and influenced by technology, few diplomats in developed countries are scientists, said members of a panel on science diplomacy. ((Heribert Proepper/Associated Press))

The failure of recent climate change talks shows scientists need to be more involved in diplomatic relations concerning global problems, say former Canadian and U.S. diplomats.

"The Copenhagen negotiations and so forth, I think, attest to the fact that in these issues, political solutions and political alliances just won't work. Politicians have to pay attention to the needs of their own countries," said Nina Fedoroff, the most recent science adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview Thursday. She was referring to the failure to reach a binding agreement on climate change targets at international talks in December 2009.

'Scientists and diplomats need to be able to talk publicly. Right now they're gagged.' — Daryl Copeland, former Canadian diplomat

Fedoroff, a geneticist and molecular biologist, told delegates at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Montreal that for many global problems a more successful route to solutions appears to be using scientific interactions and partnerships.

"Sounds great," she said during a panel on science diplomacy. "Difficult to do. Difficult to leave what was [previously] the mode of interaction behind."

Diplomats rarely scientists

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For many global problems, using scientific interactions and partnerships to generate solutions is more effective than political negotiations, said Nina Fedoroff, former science adviser to the U.S. secretary of state while speaking at the Canadian Science Policy Conference. ((Emily Chung/CBC))

Fedoroff and fellow panellist Daryl Copeland, who worked as a Canadian diplomat for 30 years, said that while many global problems ranging from pandemics to environmental degradation are rooted in science and affected by technology, few diplomats in developed countries are scientists.

And even in the case of the U.S., where the state department dealing with international affairs has had a science adviser since 2000, that doesn't necessarily mean the advice gets acted on.

"The influence of a science adviser is only as good as ears open to that science advice," Fedoroff said. "We have right now a president how is particularly open to that, and I think you're seeing much more change and much more openness to the input of the science community. But will that last? Will that become institutionalized? I don't know how you overcome the dearth of scientists in the government positions."

'The influence of a science advisor is only as good as ears open to that science advice.' — Nina Fedoroff, former science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State

She said her office has had success in boosting scientists' influence in U.S. diplomatic relations through programs such as diplomacy fellowship programs that bring scientists into the state department and a newer program that sends science envoys to other countries.

Through such programs, U.S. scientists have helped train foreign services officers and helped Iraqi scientists establish an organization similar to the National Academy of Sciences.

"If there's hope for the future, it's in the non-governmental, more global approaches," she said following the panel discussion.

Dialogue must be allowed: Copeland

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'The extraordinary controls that are in place at the moment of scientists and diplomats in the employ of the federal public sector prevent public diplomacy from delivering the results of which it is capable,' says former diplomat Daryl Copeland. (Emily Chung/CBC)

Copeland, who left the diplomatic service and published a book called Guerilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations  in 2009, said the situation is grimmer outside the U.K. and the U.S., which have science advisers for international affairs. Science and technology issues are "largely alien and invisible among policy institutions" and that is particularly the case with Canada, he added.

Copeland also believes "public diplomacy" that entails connecting directly with the population of other countries through partnerships and communication with NGOs, scholars and journalists is more effective than relying on "envoys talking about government business" when it comes to global, science-based problems.

'I don't know how you overcome the dearth of scientists in the government positions.' — Nina Fedoroff, former science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State

But he said the government needs to improve connections between scientists and the foreign ministry in order to do that, and a key part of that is loosening its grip on the flow of information.

"Scientists and diplomats need to be able to talk publicly," he told the conference. "Right now they're gagged."

The Canadian Science Writers' Association published an editorial in the journal Nature in September accusing the government of manipulating science news in the way it restricts the ability of scientists to speak publicly.

Canadian science adviser recommended

International problem solving based on scientific knowledge requires that knowledge to be shared through dialogue, Copeland later elaborated in an interview.

"So the extraordinary controls that are in place at the moment of scientists and diplomats in the employ of the federal public sector prevent public diplomacy from delivering the results of which it is capable."

Copeland also recommended that Canada's foreign affairs department create its own science adviser position.

Naser Faruqui, director of innovation, policy and science for the federally funded International Development Research Centre and the third member of the panel, said Canada has already had some success in improving international relations through scientific initiatives. For example, it has programs that paired eight top scientists in less developed nations with top Canadian scientists and provides $1 million in funding for their collaborative projects.

However, he acknowledged that IDRC accounts for less than four per cent of Canada's international assistance budget and less than that amount of its science and technology budget.