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Diplomacy meets Science in Boston

Posted by Devin Cole  November 8, 2011 05:28 PM

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Nations have long relied on scientific achievement as a powerful tool with which to build prestige. From France’s unveiling of the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 World Expo to the USSR’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, from the German autobahn to the Japanese bullet train, nations have signaled their dynamism to foreign publics with symbols of scientific prowess.

Along with cultural riches, educational and athletic achievements, and strong values, advancements in science are one of the most widely accepted signifiers of “soft power.” In today’s globalized world, smaller yet highly developed nations are turning to “science diplomacy” as a tactic of choice.

The case of Switzerland

Switzerland is currently among the most aggressive nations in leveraging science, education, and “entrepreneurial spirit” as instruments of public diplomacy. And it is not coincidental that the country chose the Boston area to establish the world’s first dedicated science consulate in 2000, known today as “swissnex Boston.”

Since then, Switzerland’s network of Science and Technology outposts has rapidly grown, with swissnex offices added in San Francisco, Singapore, Shanghai, and Bangalore; adding to the traditional science attachés in major Swiss Embassies around the World.

From traditional scientific relations to a model of “open-source” diplomacy

International scientific relations were fully integrated into some countries’ diplomatic practices long before the term “science diplomacy” existed.

While serving as US Public Affairs Officer in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s, Ambassador William Rugh:

organized a number of programs built on the US space program. We showed films of the moon landing, organized lectures by Saudi scientists on the significance of the program, mounted displays in our library and issued a series of press releases during space events. The major program we mounted was a showing of a moon rock that Washington sent to on loan for a few days, that we put on public display and that the ambassador personally showed to the king. One local restaurant changed its name to Apollo Seven. Those were all public diplomacy efforts because we were communicating an American accomplishment to the Saudi public. We did not call them ‘science diplomacy’.

Yet, the Swiss approach to the tactic remains novel. First, the swissnex network relies on a fully integrated public diplomacy strategy, invoking and involving private as well as public achievements. Swiss Universities and flagship tech companies are systematically highlighted by the country’s diplomats to improve the image of Switzerland abroad. This can be seen as a “nation branding” tactic, incorporating promising researchers and entrepreneurs to play a real role as “citizen-diplomats” of their nation.

As a direct consequence, collaborative and “open source” platforms of exchange – including the purposefully collaborative style of the Cambridge swissnex office – complement traditional consulates and enable the next generation of Swiss talent to directly mingle with local counterparts in key scientific hubs such Boston, Silicon Valley, or Bangalore. With these new outposts, dually managed by the Swiss Foreign and Home affairs departments, Switzerland creates unique showcases for its knowledge economy players, a crucial asset for a country reliant on innovation due to a lack of natural resources.

Not that resource-rich countries can’t deploy science diplomacy. Canada initiated its Global Partnerships Program – a ten-year, $1 billion project – at the 2002 G-8 Summit. Focusing initially on the states of the former Soviet Union, the program brings Canadian know-how to chemical weapons destruction, nuclear submarine dismantling, nuclear and radiological security, redirection of former weapons scientists, and biological non-proliferation. And, according to former Canadian diplomat Daryl Copeland, the program has yet to reach its full potential:

Canada's significant, yet largely unheralded, Global Partnerships Program illustrates convincingly what this country is capable of achieving through science diplomacy. Canada's comparative advantages in international S&T [science and technology] could usefully be more systematically harnessed, but some far-reaching reforms will be required in advance if the full potential is to be realized.

Why Boston?

Placing a bet on Boston’s collaborative and innovative ecosystem, the Swiss Government picked Boston to host the first swissnex. Beyond cutting-edge R&D activities in biotechnology and life sciences – flagship industries in Switzerland as well – the Director/Consul at swissnex Boston stresses Massachusetts’ unique entrepreneurial mindset as Boston’s real competitive advantage of Boston over emerging hubs in Asia. According to Consul Pascal Marmier:

If Asia, especially China, represents huge opportunities in terms of manufacturing and sales for the Swiss high-tech companies, the US, and Boston in particular, are still the heart of innovation and creativity. The entrepreneurial spirit is exportable but – in addition to that – Boston has managed to gather all the key players of an innovation ecosystem, from academics to entrepreneurs, from venture capitalist to lawyers, which makes the region still very attractive to Swiss brains.

Other nations have similarly linked their Boston presence to science diplomacy. Turkey, for example, has clear reasons for establishing their first consulate in Boston this year. “We are very much aware of the value of science diplomacy for our bilateral relations with the United States and for us as a country,” explains Consul Murat Lütem.

Traditional, diplomat to diplomat diplomacy will always be there. But building stronger ties through science cooperation is certain to be an important new pillar for our relations. Our Consulate will act as a facilitator of science diplomacy. Foreign Minister Davutoglu laid out this course quite clearly when he visited Boston last year.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that “science diplomacy… is one of our most effective ways of influencing and assisting other nations and creating real bridges between the United States and counterparts.”

As the tactic increases in importance to US public diplomacy, concludes Consul Marmier, "science hubs like Boston should consciously take advantage of their potential to positively influence America’s global image, and the US as a whole should also use our efforts (and others') to connect back to foreign innovation hubs to tap ideas and connections to continue and grow academic and business successes."

Pierre Dorsaz works as a project leader for swissnex Boston-Consulate of Switzerland, a public diplomacy initiative of the Swiss Government to promote Switzerland’s excellence in Science and higher education and innovation abroad. Follow him @PierreDorsaz or @swissnexBoston.

Jed Willard directs the Public Diplomacy Collaborative at Harvard, which promotes purposeful and effective international relations.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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