Science Diplomacy in times of COVID-19 – May 2020

“Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” – Louis Pasteur.

In simplest terms, science diplomacy can be defined as bridging the world and bringing it together on a unified scientific pedestal. It includes local, national, and global scientific collaborations, to work towards a common goal, address global issues, and to build constructive partnerships for collective progress. Such collaborations may extend to suit the national needs, cross-border interests or to even tackle global challenges. 

In the IWS monthly webinar, Dr. Imogen R Coe, professor of Chemistry and Biology at Ryerson university, an immigrant woman in Canadian science and a Canadian thought leader in the integration of principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA), explored the concept in terms of Canada’s position on science diplomacy, esp. during times of global crises. 

Watch the recording of the webinar below:

Science diplomacy is built on the understanding of science policy, to ensure that science informs decision-making, thus influencing global scenarios. We have previously seen many successful examples of Science diplomacy, including that of the Arctic science agreement where several countries came together to conserve and manage the region, or the global stance on environmental and climate change policies.  

Canada has a vast and diverse scientific diaspora due in part to the relaxed immigration laws, which in turn becomes an extraordinarily rich resource, as it ensures rich networks. As a testimony to this, the webinar saw participation not only from various cities across Canada, but attendees, men and women, from different countries joined in the rich discussion that ensued. 

The immigrant and international community can be particularly relevant in driving international cooperation and therefore promoting effective science diplomacy. In the poll conducted during the webinar, we found that the attendees, who were mostly immigrants, were a fair mix of professional backgrounds including academia, government, private, and non-profit sectors; highlighting the important role immigrant scientists already play in the Canadian workforce. 

This diversity, particularly in science, places Canada in a unique position for science diplomacy. However, Canada has not been able to fully leverage these skills and resources, as it lacks an efficient integration between science and parliament. This contrasts with countries like Australia which, for instance, has been implementing successful science meets parliament model for the last 20 years. Other countries like  New Zealand and the United states of America have also started following the model and talks around science diplomacy have been gaining impetus. 

Science diplomacy and COVID-19 : the role of scientists

In the wake of the current global emergency, Dr. Coe discussed how international collaborations become exceedingly relevant, especially when dealing with global issues like the COVID-19 pandemic. The current situation of pandemic has witnessed tremendous international scientific collaboration with a goal to develop a potential treatment or vaccine and make it globally available on a priority basis.  For this, global efforts need to be, and have been made to update scientific information, viral sequences, clinical details, drug efficacy and vaccine trials to make them globally available. The scientific community has seen tremendous spurt in open access research, as well as extensive international scientific exchanges and knowledge transfer during this period. However, among many other things, such international networks can also be leveraged to re-establish trust and diffuse tensions when political relations are strained. Science diplomacy could then act as the key to build bridges between science and policy and between countries while tackling these issues.

“Scientific pursuits transcend geographical and political boundaries. Regardless, it has been influenced and afflicted by societal and cultural malpractices relating to gender, race, and ethnicity. The need of the hour is to acknowledge these inadequacies and incorporate this knowledge into our thoughts and actions as a  scientific community. Integration of science in polity and society is inevitable and it is the responsibility of scientists to achieve it through diplomacy”

Science and Policy

One of the important messages from the current global situation is the imminent need of perfusion of   scientific information in the systems at the helm of policy making. Scientists and policymakers need to collaborate and exchange information to influence and formulate Science and evidence-based policy. Proactive participation of scientists as policy influencers/makers can diffuse or even avert global crises and emergencies. 

In the Canadian landscape, organisations like Canadian science and policy centre, Science and policy exchange, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, and EURAXESS North America are mention worthy, for their attempts in bridging this gap at the national level or across borders. 

Science and Society

Another important aspect is the exchange of scientific information with the society.  Scientific communication has been grossly undervalued and neglected, leading to a vast divide between science and society. However, scientists need to come forward and address pertinent issues that affect the society at personal or the organisational level. It becomes the responsibility of the scientists to use their position and voices to create scientific awareness. Communicating the science outside the laboratory is not optional and can be achieved through working with the local political representatives, community organizers, radio stations and social media platforms. This becomes especially relevant in the current times, where misinformation and myths have infiltrated the society through social media. Many of us are already busting such myths by creating and curating contents according to local languages and cultural practices. 

Women in Science: Society, diplomacy, and COVID-19

It is obvious that gender equity is crucial for the progress of science, polity, and society alike. While the pandemic has seen equal and commendable participation of women scientists, there have been observations of the challenges gender equity has faced due in part to the fact that adjusting to the working reality in the work from home set up is often more challenging for  women. This is a cause for concern and calls for collective efforts beyond the gender barriers.

With scientific experiences spanning across political and geographical boundaries, Immigrant women in science can bring to the table a lot more than just their core scientific skills.

There are cultural, professional and personal challenges that the immigrant workforce, particularly  the women in science often face. However, recognising one’s strengths is the key to overcoming such hurdles. Immigrant and international women bring international collaborations, are highly connected and educated, speak multiple languages, and have resilience and several other ‘employability’ and communication skills. Given these core competencies, Science diplomacy could be a shining career  for immigrant women in science trying to make an impact through their work. Various organisations including International women’s forum (IWF)  aim at developing such leadership skills in women.

Overall, the key take home message from the webinar was for the scientists to understand and leverage their position as scientists, academicians, professionals and individuals to educate and influence polity and society.  Contribution to science diplomacy: organized or individual, overt or subtle, is our collective responsibility. 

The webinar ended with a shout out from the speaker to all the immigrant women scientists braving challenges and standing strong despite all. 

“The world is unfair, but I have to be true to myself and I have to fight for a fair world. If others are complaining, that is a sign I am doing something right. Know your core values, stick to them; be strong.”

Written by: Pooja Shree, Razan, Romina, Betty, Josseline, Giulia, and Nicole 

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