There has been plenty of research on the role of science in predicting and preparing for health crises. Yet, less attention has been given to the integration of this knowledge into public health policy, diplomatic practice and global mitigation strategies. Science diplomacy, understood as the use of scientific, technological and academic collaborations among countries, regions and societies to address common issues, is more relevant than ever.
While we are living one of the most disastrous weeks in the history of global medicine and global economics, country after country is retreating into their national silos. They are fighting their individual battles against coronavirus in their own way. Each country has, of course, its distinctive health system and medical experts and the disease is at a different stage in each. Yet, why, as the disease engulfs more than 100 countries, has there been no consistent, coordinated global approach to not just tracking, testing and limiting mobility but to openly learn from each other about the relative merits of quarantine and social distancing? How can science diplomacy improve virus mitigation and response strategies across boundaries?
To shed light on some of these questions, I had the opportunity to virtually meet with four renowned international experts in this topic during the first of five online sessions organized by SciTech DiploHub, Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub. These SciDipTalks bring together leading specialists in global health, science diplomacy, technology and geopolitics from world-class institutions to open up and bring in-depth analysis and expertise on the current outbreak to the public debate.
According to Julia MacKenzie, Senior Director for International Affairs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), «The COVID-19 outbreak clearly shows the need for science diplomacy and new instruments of multi-level governance». She stressed that «trust and accountability are integral to the research enterprise and sharing of scientific information. These are values that transcend national and cultural boundaries and are powerful tools to better tackle this global challenge».
Along the same lines, Antoni Plasència, Director General of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), emphasized the need to «create new avenues for the exchange of best practices in order to systematize learning and improve the coordinated management of possible future pandemics». «Leadership, better coordination and a clear governing framework are needed to ensure that efforts sum up to a functional, adequate global outbreak management system».
The paramount importance of health literacy as a global public good was one of the main insights that Ilona Kickbusch, Chair of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute Geneva, brought to the table. «The COVID-19 outbreak shows how important it is to establish health literacy as a critical component of public health. Well-informed individual behavior is a key intervention alongside medical and governmental action». She highlighted the crucial role that health authorities play in providing information that is easy-to-understand, easy-to-access, and barrier-free, to slow down the spread of the virus and mitigating the impact and effects of COVID-19.
The re-emergence of the nation-state in contrast to subnational governments and multilateral organizations during this crisis was one of the points raised by Lorenzo Melchor, Science Diplomacy Officer at the S4D4C Project of the European Commission and EU science advice and diplomacy officer at the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT). He also stressed the benefits of «open science and open data in international health emergencies and the opportunity to better translate scientific research into policy». Global health experts and biomedical scientists are in the global spotlight, advising and providing insight to both policymakers and the general public. Science should have a stronger voice in the public debate after this crisis.
There is no doubt that science across all relevant disciplines will continue to play an important role in informing critical decisions and helping to guide response and recovery. The scientific community, in partnership with decision-makers at all levels, has been involved in conducting, organizing and communicating science during this global crisis. But further progress is needed. Best practices must be defined, a coordinated research agenda put in place, and global policy reforms must be initiated. The COVID-19 crisis shows that science diplomacy has many long-term benefits. It can foster interdisciplinary collaborations within and among the scientific community, emergency response managers, local communities, federal, state, and local governments, and the private sector.
This will not be the end of an interconnected world. Quite the opposite, this pandemic is proof of our interdependence. In a globalized world, we cannot afford to ignore health risks arising in other countries. We have the responsibility to establish support mechanisms that help others address emerging health threats. Faced with a global pandemic such as COVID-19, political leaders should be guided by scientific evidence, not anecdotes or xenophobia. Better cooperation in global health management and scientific advice in international affairs could save countless lives in the next major crisis. This is the time for science diplomacy.
Alexis Roig is CEO of SciTech DiploHub, the Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, Professor at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology and has over 10 years’ experience as senior advisor on science diplomacy for ministries of Foreign Affairs, Science, Research and Education across Asia and Europe.
Follow Alexis Roig on Twitter: www.twitter.com/alexisroig/
Follow SciTech DiploHub on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SciTechDiploHub/
Watch the video of the online seminar “Science Diplomacy and Pandemics: A Call for Greater International Cooperation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=334Lmy7eIXs