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ERC Conference - Frontier Research and Science Diplomacy

Start date: 27.10.2016

End date: 28.10.2016

Location: Brussels

Country: Belgium

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The Conference will take stock of relevant research supported by the European Research Council (ERC), provide a forum of dialogue for researchers and policy actors, and position the ERC as contributor to science diplomacy through its ‘bottom up’ approach where research is investigator-driven. More specifically, the Conference
aims to:

  • Explore state-of-the-art research related to science diplomacy as part of a scholarly understanding of the increasing call on science to help tackle cross-border, global issues;
  • Examine the practice of doing research across disciplinary, geopolitical and cultural borders and the implications for science itself and the broader context;
  • Highlight examples of curiosity-driven frontier research that contribute to the understanding as well as the practice of science diplomacy.


Science diplomacy is a recently emerging term in the EU context and at the broader international level. The report, published in 2010, by the UK Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), ‘New frontiers in science diplomacy – navigating the changing balance of powers’, that distinguishes ‘science in diplomacy’, ‘science for diplomacy’ and ‘diplomacy for science’, has been pivotal in fostering debate around the subject . The AAAS also launched the first journal on the topic ‘Science and Diplomacy’ in 2012 and established a Centre and a Prize.

While the increased interest in the subject is relatively new, the concept itself is not. The use of the positive ‘side effects’ of scientific collaboration goes back many decades, the interactions between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War being a known example. A prominent instance of science diplomacy from this era was the researcher-driven Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs which was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and continues to bring together scholars and public figures to help reduce the risk of armed conflict.

Other bottom-up initiatives promoted by scientists have a strong tradition in science diplomacy, while not necessarily being called so; for example, Scientists Without Borders, the Lindau Nobel laureates meetings for science beyond borders, the Malta Conferences or the Council of At-Risk Academics.

The United Nations resorted to the power of science in advancing many diplomatic negotiations on issues ranging from non-proliferation to the definition of the Sustainable Development Goals. Recently, some national research agencies also started cooperating in the field of science diplomacy. For example, the German Centers for Research and Innovation (GCRI) have been established worldwide from 2010 onwards as part of the globalization strategy of the German Federal Government, and there is also the science diplomacy initiative by the US Department of Foreign Affairs. Some governments, e.g. France and Spain, issued reports on science diplomacy as part of their foreign relations or development cooperation policies.

The renaissance of the concept may be due to the heightened awareness about challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss or protection of endangered cultural heritage that cannot possibly be addressed by one country alone or even, in most cases, a group of countries. By focusing on shared research objectives and reaching out to their international counterparts in order to access knowledge and resources, and to further their insights, scientists contribute greatly to foster communication and understanding across different contexts.

The EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Carlos Moedas recognised the relevance of this concept early on: “In delivering (my) priorities, it is essential that we step up our engagement with the rest of the world by supporting science diplomacy and international cooperation”. During a 2015 mission to the SESAME (Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) infrastructure in the Middle East, Commissioner Moedas referred to the importance of science diplomacy and subsequently highlighted the need to reinforce international engagement through science diplomacy by making it one of his three strategic priorities labelled ‘Open to the World’, in addition to ‘Open Innovation’ and ‘Open Science’.

Building on its bottom-up approach, the ERC may have a role to play as well according to the Commissioner. In the “Introduction to the Annual Report on ERC activities and achievements in 2014” , Commissioner Moedas noted that ‘The ERC brand has almost limitless potential, it epitomises the core values of science diplomacy and provides a strong basis for networking Europe among our international partners’. ERC allows top-class researchers to apply from anywhere in the world and from all fields of science to work on any topic that they deem to be cutting-edge. This openness and flexibility paired with high funding levels make it a prime partner for scientists wanting to push the frontier of knowledge.

From the diplomatic side, “The Global Strategy for the EU Foreign and Security Policy” put forward in June 2016 by High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) Federica Mogherini, makes explicit reference to science diplomacy in relation to conflict settlement and enhancing resilience in the EU neighbourhood and this is testament to science diplomacy becoming more and more prominent
in the EU agenda.


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