Meet the Next Generation of Science Diplomats

A cohort of professionals from 13 countries convened virtually in 2021 for an intensive two-week course to fast-track their way to becoming seasoned in science diplomacy.

In early 2021, Geneva-based United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) partnered with Swissnex and four major Boston-area academic institutions to help educate the next generation of leaders in the field of science diplomacy through the two-week course “Executive Summer Program on Innovations in Science Diplomacy.” 

The UNITAR course, which specifically targeted least developed countries (LDCs), included 16 participants from 13 countries—Ghana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, Nigeria, Zambia, South Sudan, Fiji, Malaysia, Canada, and Germany— as well as Ambassador Alexandre Fasel, Switzerland’s first representative for science diplomacy.

“The need for international scientific cooperation has never been greater than in this moment of global crisis,” said Benjamin Bollmann, CEO of Swissnex in Boston. “We’re proud to be a part of such a brilliant group of people at the crossroads of science and policy.” 

A fairer future for the global south

Over two weeks, participants heard from more than 35 speakers, including a decorated roster of former and current diplomats, academics, scientists, and more. “It was an eye-opening experience,” says Canadian participant Catherine Lefebvre, who currently works for Scotland-based photonics and quantum technology company M Squared Lasers. 

“Some highlights were getting formal training on the role of science diplomats—bridging between science and policy—and learning how to effectively use the power of scientific knowledge while building common interests and trust,” says Lefebvre.

While science diplomacy is gaining momentum in the global north, international collaboration efforts must also include less-developed countries, says Senegalese participant Fatou Sagna, who currently serves as Technical Advisor to the President of the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (ESEC) for Senegal.

Sagna says ensuring science has a role in implementing policy in the global south is crucial. “It is a real challenge in Africa to have access to up-to-date data using technology that does not require heavy infrastructures and investments,” she said, calling the Swissnex approach “a great illustration of how science can help policymakers by implementing technical solutions.”

For another Senegalese participant, Mame Fatime Diop, science diplomacy presents the opportunity of a lifetime. “I have always wanted to represent my country in international conferences and be at the heart of major decision-making bodies to ensure a fairer future for these millions of people who are the most vulnerable,” she says.

As a result of the UNITAR course, Diop, Sagna and another colleague are working on a roadmap of existing science diplomacy initiatives in Senegal. They intend to make proposals to “promote and develop a network of all stakeholders and a community of experts for extended and strengthened science diplomacy in Senegal.” Diop has a message to future UNITAR course participants: “Come as you are. Find out about your country’s achievements in science diplomacy and raise questions!”

Saving the planet with science-backed policy

The program also had participation from Fiji, an archipelago of more than 300 islands famed for its picturesque landscapes, palm-lined beaches, and dazzling coral reefs with clear lagoons. Since its independence in 1970, the small island nation has become a leader in the South Pacific and played a leading role in the formation of the Pacific Islands Forum. As an archipelago in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, Fiji also places a heavy emphasis on environmental governance and international cooperation on combating climate change.

Sandeep K Singh, a program participant who has served as Fiji’s Director of Environment since 2016, emphasizes the importance of science diplomacy in her work. “I run a science-based department for the government of Fiji, and we frequently require diplomatic interventions and engagement with a wide range of stakeholders,” says Singh. 

Singh strongly believes that science should be the core and basis for decisions made in the environmental governance sphere, and that “science should be taken seriously by policy makers if we are to save our planet.” She added that “the science of climate change is clear and must not be ignored.”

Participating in the UNITAR program, according to Singh, gave her “an opportunity to model an intertwining approach towards situations that demanded a diplomatic disposition while conveying science-based decisions to significant stakeholder groups.” 

Singh was so dedicated to completing the program that she didn’t let a 16-hour time difference get in the way. “Joining the program from the Pacific meant that I’d spend all night awake until dawn every day,” reflected Singh. “The interactive sessions, exercises, intense discussions, and debates kept me active and glued to the program throughout those long nights.”

A growing community of practice

The course is slated to return for its second edition in 2022, with participants, organizers, and speakers already working to shape future editions of the program. Swissnex organizer Jonas Brunschwig, who recently started his tenure as CEO of Swissnex in India, remained confident in the program’s future success. “Knowing that this program seeded a community of practice that will continue to grow in time as the program continues over the next couple of years is an achievement to be very excited about for all of us.”

The Executive Summer Program on Innovations in Science Diplomacy was initiated by the Science Diplomacy Center and is run in collaboration with the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston), Boston University (BU), the Science Diplomacy Center, and Swissnex in Boston and New York.

For more information on the 2022 edition of the program, please contact our head of Academic Engagement, Brendan Karch.