A personal reflection on Science Diplomacy & COVID-19

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INGSA/Koi Tū Exclusive

5th April 2020

Marga Gual Soler

Founder of SciDipGLOBAL
Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum


A group of science advisors is gathered in a room for a briefing about a new viral infectious disease spreading rapidly across borders, causing respiratory failure and death in its victims. The novel virus is thought to have originally jumped to people from a wild animal and is now spreading through human-to-human transmission.
There is no treatment yet, but candidate antiviral drugs and vaccines are under development, thanks to the fastest international scientific collaboration the world has ever seen.

For now, the only effective interventions to control the outbreak are social isolation, use of face masks, contact tracing, and good laboratory service for testing. New social media groups are emerging to share information and prevention measures, but they also spread claims of miracle cures and panic-inducing conspiracy theories. Unscrupulous merchants are selling medical equipment and diagnostic tests at extortionate rates. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) scramble to counter misinformation, while diplomatic tensions grow as countries close borders and deploy the armed forces to try to curb the pandemic.

This is not a snapshot of the COVID-19 pandemic that currently has much of the globe on lockdown. Rather, it's the premise of an entirely fictional role-play simulation I helped facilitate in 2017 during a science advice workshop in Buenos Aires, organized by the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, and the Ministry of Science of Argentina.

The game was designed to immerse a group of Latin American young scientists, policymakers and diplomats into a global outbreak originating in the imaginary country of Panderia to illuminate the complexity of the issues at the nexus between science, diplomacy, and society. The simulation exposed participants to the myriad of considerations and uncertainties that governments face in a fast-moving transnational crisis, which typically include incomplete information, fake news, competing interests and pressures from different stakeholders, and sometimes animosity with neighboring countries.

Three years later, the scenario has become a reality.

Much has been written already about the vacuum in global leadership exposed by Covid-19. But we have also seen very different responses from the scientific, political and diplomatic communities: while world leaders have locked their borders and taken unilateral actions, scientists have engaged in a global collaboration unlike any in history. As we emerge from the crisis, we must examine if we have the right science-policy interface structures in place to anticipate transnational risks and ensure the provision of evidence-informed domestic and foreign policy to address them.

For many of us in the science advice and science diplomacy communities, COVID-19 has made our work deeply personal, relevant and urgent.

A recent Nature editorial urged government science advisers to advocate for a collective and transparent response to COVID-19. But most countries still lack formal science advisory mechanisms, and these differ greatly across countries and systems of government. Fortunately, more countries are recognizing the need to integrate science, technology, and innovation into their foreign policy structures  and launching innovative efforts to enhance science-policy interfaces, not only by national governments but also at the regional, city, and multilateral levels.

For many of us in the science advice and science diplomacy communities, COVID-19 has made our work deeply personal, relevant and urgent. I have dedicated my career to understanding and teaching the links between science and diplomacy to address environmental and global health challenges, from climate change to pandemics. I helped governments and international organizations strengthen their science-policy interfaces, including coordination between the scientific and diplomatic spheres to tackle transboundary threats.

It took the worst pandemic of the century for scientists to be more visible and valued...this presents an opportunity

But how to apply our knowledge and expertise to a real-world crisis unfolding in real-time, affecting our friends, families, and communities? This is not a case study or an academic exercise. Every day I try to connect everything I have learned to what is needed at this moment, as well as think about the long-term consequences.

The Forum of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum brings together leaders from all over the world in research, technology, government, NGOs, and industry to facilitate multi-stakeholder collaboration to address global challenges.

When I became a member earlier this year, I immediately saw its potential as a science diplomacy tool, a real-life experiment where I could leverage my global networks, for example, to connect governments and international organizations to much-needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suppliers.

It was also an opportunity to use my own molecular biology and biomedical sciences background to provide scientific and technical advice to SolveCovid19, a platform connecting scientists, entrepreneurs, government officials, and industry leaders working on rapid solutions to COVID-19. These are the kind of global multidisciplinary networks that can be quickly activated in times of emergency. Just like the science advisors of Panderia are doing today, continuously exchanging information and comparing COVID-19 policies and best practices across countries.

It took the worst pandemic of the century for scientists to be more visible and valued than ever by politicians and the public. But this presents an opportunity: we are (involuntarily) immersed in the biggest real-time science lesson the world has ever seen. Never in my wildest dreams, as a molecular biologist, I would have imagined terms like DNA, RNA or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) going mainstream, mathematical concepts of linear, exponential and logarithmic growth explained on prime time television, and public health interventions become overnight trending topics.

This is the time for scientists to engage with the public and policy spheres and promote the values of science - openness, transparency, international collaboration - as our best strategy for fighting this pandemic and all the future ones to come. We must continue working with all countries to establish long-term science-policy interface mechanisms and train a new generation of science diplomats across the world, to counter the forces pushing for even more isolation, separation, and turning inwards.

It’s time to reimagine our multilateral system - the international institutions and rules designed to promote the common good - with science, technology, health and the environment at its core. Two futures are possible, which one are we going to choose?


Dr. Marga Gual Soler, a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, is an internationally recognized expert, author, practitioner, and educator in science diplomacy. She is the founder of SciDipGLOBAL, a scholar with The World Academy of Sciences, and an advisor to the EU Science Diplomacy Cluster. Until 2019 she served as a high-level policy advisor to former European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas. Previously she was a Senior Project Director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and Arizona State University faculty. She holds a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology from The University of Queensland in Australia and in 2019 participated in the largest all-women expedition to Antarctica to promote women's leadership in climate action.