How to be a science diplomat in Europe

25 July 2021


­­­Reported by Matthias Meller, CSaP Policy Intern

It is 7:22 on a Monday morning when you receive an urgent mail asking for comments on a pressing foreign policy paper by 9:30 am. Maybe you are an analyst in a foreign office… or maybe you are a science diplomat.

In the summer of 2021, Dr Jan Marco Müller, the first Science & Technology Advisor for the European External Action Service [EEAS] and doctoral researcher Paola Yanguas Parra joined the Centre for Science and Policy and the Berlin Centre for Global Engagement (BCGE) for a Q&A session exploring what it is like to be a science diplomat, how such a role can generate impact, and the challenges faced by those working in science diplomacy.

The use of science advice in foreign policy, one of the three strands of science diplomacy, has gained momentum in recent years. “Science is stepping into the diplomatic sphere”, as Dr Müller put it, amplified by global climate change discussions and further surging in the Covid-19 pandemic. In recounting how he became a science diplomat, Dr Müller, a former CSaP policy fellow, described a career which started with a PhD in Geography, leading to opportunities in science management and advice stations all across Europe, including becoming assistant to the EU’s Chief Scientific Advisor Prof Dame Anne Glover. These experiences have informed Dr Müller’s more recent work as a science diplomat with EEAS, where he has focused on coordinating a coherent European voice in foreign policy which recognizes the increasingly prominent role played by scientific evidence and technology in international relations.

Dr Müller’s work involves engaging with global scientific community, providing strategic analysis, and contributing to policy briefings in support of the EU’s foreign policy interests. He has noted that science enlarges the toolbox of diplomacy because scientists can go where diplomats sometimes cannot”. Here, he gave the example of EU-Russia relations which have remained dependable in research and innovation cooperation, even as relations in other sectors have sometimes become tense.

Dr Müller believes that scientists have a responsibility to convince societies of the importance of science, technology, and strong research institutions. Ultimately, he believes that citizens need these tools to demand evidence-informed policymaking from governments. Here, he reflected on how the pandemic has affected science diplomacy, while calling for there to be a space between science and policy for experts to deliver purely scientific assessments.

Meanwhile, doctoral researcher Paola Yanguas Parra highlighted the role of science diplomats in building bridges across disciplines, while being aware of how political interests may influence how policymakers interpret scientific evidence and advice. Here, she also called for scientific and diplomatic discussions to be democratised and decentralised, while stressing that scientists pursuing careers in science diplomacy need to increase and improve communication with citizens, in order to avoid the dangerous perception that scientists are solely part of a ‘decision-making elite’, in a world where misinformation and ‘alternative facts’ are rife.