Using science for diplomatic purposes

National boundaries and political differences have a big impact on science. Two researchers living on opposite sides of even a peaceful border may have different access to funding and facilities. But in regions affected by cross-border distrust or conflict, scientists are often prevented from working together by government sanctions, or by personal prejudices against those they have learned to view as competitors, and even enemies. As Patrick Walter discussed previously in Chemistry World, this is causing a marked decline in international scientific collaboration, despite the continuing threats of Covid-19, climate change and other issues that can only truly be solved by global cooperation.

Yet science can be a powerful tool for diplomacy, helping to overcome national and political divides. The Malta Conferences have been doing this since 2003, bringing together researchers and policymakers from across the Middle East (and beyond) to discuss the scientific issues affecting the region. I was lucky enough to attend Malta X in November, and the atmosphere was unlike any other scientific event I’ve been to. Getting to know each other was just as important as learning about new research developments – all social events were mandatory, and attendees were banned from bringing family or friends with them. It was an intense experience (particularly if, like me, you’re an introvert), but it was worth it for the conversations it led to. You had time not only to learn about someone’s work, but also about their life, interests and dreams in a way that you seldom get to experience in a professional environment. All of which goes a long way to breaking down misconceptions you might have formed about each other, and to see the common goals that you share. I’m excited to see the outcomes of some of the collaborations established at the meeting. 

Not everyone has the opportunity to make those connections. For some, working with someone of the ‘wrong’ nationality can lead to them or their family being arrested, or worse. Even for those willing and able to travel, rejected visa applications can ruin plans (as they did for several delegates of Malta X). Technological difficulties and firewalls can prevent meetings happening remotely. Timezones, travel costs and language barriers provide further challenges to overcome.

There are no easy fixes to these problems. This is why those of us who can work across borders should do all we can to support and include those who cannot. Doing so brings benefits with impacts beyond science. As Malta Conferences Foundation president Zafra Lerman has said previously, the ultimate goal of the conferences is to ‘form a critical mass of scientists to start a chain reaction for peace’. Where scientists lead, hopefully others will follow.