The Importance of Science Diplomacy in the Context of International Relations

The Importance of Science Diplomacy in the Context of International Relations – Featuring Portugal

Jorge Marinho

PhD in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism


Júlio Ventura

MA in Political Science and International Relations, BA in Law

Lourenço Ribeiro
BA in Sociology, MA student in Public Policy at Iscte – University Institute of Lisbon (Portugal)




In this article, Science Diplomacy (SD) is envisioned in terms of international cooperation, with a possible peace factor, and competition among nations. SD can be related to both soft power and hard power. This piece underscores SD in Portugal, considering its historical relations with the Portuguese-Speaking African Countries and East Timor, the scientific diaspora and the European Union context. This work results from bibliographic research and exclusive interviews with Lawrence Susskind, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Science Impact Collaborative, and with Pedro Figueroa, President of DiploCientifica.


Keywords: DiploCientifica; international relations; Massachusetts Institute of Technology Science Impact Collaborative; Portugal; science diplomacy




This work is based on bibliographic research and on exclusive interviews with Lawrence Susskind*, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Science Impact Collaborative (People), and with Pedro Figueroa**, President of DiploCientifica (Quiénes Somos).

While the concept of Science Diplomacy (SD) emerged in the early 21st century (Arnaldi, Tessarolo, p.8), it had already been previously carried out (Domingues, Neto 2017, p. 612). Even though there is no single definition garnering the unanimous acceptance of experts (Eigner July 2023, p.1), SD can be understood according to three aspects (New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy: Navigating the Changing Balance of Power January 2010, p. VI):

-science in diplomacy: scientific advice in relation to foreign policy
-diplomacy for science: diplomatic activities aimed at facilitating international scientific collaboration
-science for diplomacy: the use of science cooperation to forge international relations between countries.

There are often SD activities where these three aspects are simultaneously present (Eigner July 2023, p. 3).

As envisioned in this article, SD covers the fields of higher education, research, innovation, science and technology (Pinto May-October 2022, p. 99). SD is characterized by its complexity, owing, among various aspects, to its broad coverage and to its constant evolution (Flink, Ruffin 2019, p. 104).

SD in the context of international relations


SD's notable expansion, both in the practical sphere and in the field of academic research, is due to its growing importance as part of foreign policy (Krasnyak May 16, 2019). Lawrence Susskind points out that there are several diplomatic academies scattered worldwide (Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, for instance) where SD is present in many of their training programs. In the view of Pedro Figueroa, SD is not addressed in the same way in every country in the world, since the various specificities need to be considered.

The global challenges that are part of the international agenda, such as biodiversity, human health and climate stability, have contributed, to a great extent, toward SD's current prominence (Ruffini 2020). These and other challenges are presented as being insurmountable by a single country, hence the call for international scientific collaboration (Ruffini 2020). Somehow, SD is globalized (Robinson, et alii August 2023) and related to global governance (Legrand, Stone March 7, 2018), but, in reality, SD can also serve national interests (Ruffin, Ruland July 14, 2022). 

Lawrence Susskind notes that collaborative actions intended to promote SD in the international sphere are growing rapidly. To this end, Susskind stresses that a few organizations, such as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and international development banks, are trying to get countries to engage in greater cooperation, in order to jointly be able to develop their SD capabilities. According to this MIT Professor, multilateral or global organizations need SD staff who often come from national departments and agencies. Susskind feels it would be a serious mistake for said staff to be set up solely by global North experts.

SD practitioners, at times called science diplomats, are all those who, whether officially or unofficially performing diplomatic duties, act in spheres where science and diplomacy intersect (Ruffini 2020). Formally, SD, at embassies, can be conducted, for example, by attachés and counselors (What Kind of Science Diplomats Are There?). To further exemplify, and in institutional terms, SD can also include representatives from research organizations who have been sent abroad (What Kind of Science Diplomats Are There?). The way Pedro Figueroa sees it, professionals in the sphere of foreign affairs, striving to leave their comfort zone, should be interested in science and technology. However, according to this interviewee, the reverse is also valid; that is, science-related professionals should also show interest in foreign affairs.

There are several examples of non-institutional SD practitioners: inter alia, scientists, directors and managers of research centers (What Kind of Science Diplomats Are There?). The importance of scientists taking part in SD should be underscored (The Science in Science Diplomacy: Perspectives from Peter McGrath from TWAS September 17, 2020). Lawrence Susskind maintains that said scientists need to be suited to participate in international or global negotiations which basically comprise a political nature. This is why, according to Susskind, currently presidents or prime-ministers have senior advisers, as part of an interdisciplinary staff, especially prepared to take part in resolving conflicts and in science-intensive policy negotiations. 

Susskind states that, as part of advanced academic training in science and engineering, there is little to no instruction in SD. This scholar adds that, actually, many universities refrain from including, in their traditional science and engineering programs, negotiation / conflict management, policy analysis and diplomatic studies. Lawrence Susskind reveals that he is seeking to obtain philanthropic grants to fund the creation, on the Internet, of SD training programs to be made available free of charge worldwide, in the form of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This way, as Susskind intends, students will no longer depend on their universities for the additional training they need.

Soft power


The signing, with media coverage, of an international cooperation agreement, in the areas of science and technology, constitutes an opportunity to convey a message to the other country's people (Dolan December 2012). SD can be envisaged as a soft power and public diplomacy instrument (Freeman March 2019, p. 4), at times with long-term effects (Koch-Krumrei January 2022, p. 17), such that the countries become internationally attractive and influential. SD needs to be regarded as an important tool of any country, regardless of their size or wealth (Gluckman, et alii December 2017).

Science can serve for small countries to boost their relevance within the international context (Gluckman, et alii December 2017). Pedro Figueroa notes that science and technology produced in a country contribute toward heightening international reputation. The President of DiploCientifica believes that countries that are able to be identified as lands of science will, over time, grow their soft power, in the international setting, given that most people enjoy science and technology. 


Collaboration / competition


An in-depth analysis of SD should start off by concerning various stakeholders and their interests (Fagersten 2022, p. 7).  Conflicts of interest can occur between scientists and diplomats (Young, et alii September 2020, p. 6). Scientists fear being manipulated by diplomats and by politicians who uphold national and political interests different from theirs (Young, et alii September 2020, p. 6). 

SD is a means to attain a variety of objectives (Fagersten 2022, p. 7). On the one hand, SD is related to countries' international cooperation in tackling global problems (Young, et alii September 2020, p. 5). On the other hand, SD also comprises a dimension of international competition in the scientific field (Young, et alii September 2020, p. 5). According to Pedro Figueroa, advances in Science and Technology are the fruit of a delicate balance between competition and cooperation. Figueroa underscores that science diplomats need to strive to increase, internationally, freedom of research among collaborators. Still, this interviewee adds that researchers should not be naïve and, as such, must remain attentive to the advantages that international partners wish to obtain. 

According to Eigner (July 2023, p. 4), SD activities aim to achieve a competitive edge in relation to other States, concerning science and technology as well as the economic results of all this. However, said activities can also foster exchange, both individually and institutionally, thereby contributing toward international harmony (Eigner July 2023, p. 4). Combining the sphere of science and technology with the field of international affairs entails being able to find common interests (Young, et alii September 2020, p. 6). According to various experts, this can be pivotal for preventing conflicts between civilizations and for the progress of Humankind (Young, et alii September 2020, p. 6).

University of Lisbon logo1.Embracing technology

As seen, the concept of SD can be viewed under several perspectives. In the days of the Cold War, there was a separation between the agendas of cultural and military attachés which the term Science Diplomacy put an end to (Olsáková, Robinson March 20, 2022). SD includes soft power and hard power in international relations (Olsáková, Robinson March 20, 2022). With this comprehensiveness, SD generates tensions in times of crisis and, as a concept, it works very well within a context of peace (Olsáková, Robinson March 20, 2022). From the standpoint of Olsáková and Robinson (March 20, 2022), SD's primary mission is to uphold national interests. These experts realize that presenting science as being synonymous with peace is a myth of SD (Olsáková, Robinson March 20, 2022). 

To Pedro Figueroa, one of the pivotal aspects of SD consists of lending support to decision-making, as part of foreign policy, by providing scientific evidence. Figueroa feels this science- and technology-based advice can contribute toward coming up with more peaceful solutions to disputes between countries. This expert maintains that many of the current international conflicts could be better addressed and prevented if diplomats brought more science to the negotiating table.

In relation to the current international scenario, Jan Marco Muller believes that, specifically, the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine displayed SD's soft power limits, with weapons taking center stage and with States against this war suspending formal cooperation with Russian universities and research centers (Whiffen June 2022). Nonetheless, Muller argues that it still remains important to maintain interpersonal contacts with Russian scientists without endangering anyone (Whiffen June 2022).  These contacts, according to Muller, will bear their fruits, with contribution from SD, when said conflict ends (Whiffen June 2022). Various experts, such as Aukes and Kuhlmann (February 2022, p. 20), highlight SD's ability to keep communication channels open between geopolitical adversaries. However, it is not easy to develop scientific cooperation without conveying significant knowledge to an adversary power (Aukes, Kuhlmann February 2022, p. 20). This can raise a dilemma and, since there is no general formula, the decision whether or not to begin SD activities should go by way of pondering diverse specific factors of each situation in particular (Aukes, Kuhlmann February 2022, p. 20).

The depth of changes in SD can outweigh the current Russian-Ukrainian military conflict, namely science's tendency to be increasingly regarded as a national asset and less deemed something that is shared globally (Kurbalija April 15, 2022). This can be exemplified with the security permissions that various universities and research centers are rolling out, chiefly in domains with military importance, such as, inter alia, biotechnology, artificial intelligence and physics (Kurbalija April 15, 2022). Although said tendency is a reality, the wish for SD to remain linked to peace must not wane. (Kurbalija April 15, 2022). Lawrence Susskind states that, in the field of SD, there are many players whose main aim is to arrive at a peaceful resolution to national differences or, in other words, to prevent war. Susskind realizes that, for instance, the solution to the dispute over Arctic fishing resources by countries in the region, according to their national interests, will go by way of science collaborative efforts pointing to sustainable growth and collective management of the common pool resource.

Portuguese Science Diplomacy


At government level, interministerial cooperation is vital to SD's success. This is seen in countries such as France, where the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs cooperates with the Ministry of Higher Education and Research (Scientific Diplomacy). In another Member State of the European Union, Portugal, Pinto (May-October 2022, p. 99) conducted work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and for the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education, under the topic of SD. This somehow also serves to exemplify the need to coordinate a variety of sectors of society, including in terms of the various Government ministries, so that SD yields positive fruits.

Pinto (May-October 2022, p. 99 / 104) considers that Portuguese SD is defined in Council of Ministers Resolution No. 78/2016, November 30. This document holds that SD consists of using resources and initiatives from the field of science and technology, coherently and consistently, as part of Portugal's European and foreign policy, in order to pursue this policy's aims and, specifically, promote the nation's image and interests (Presidência do Conselho de Ministros – Resolução do Conselho de Ministros Nº 78/2016, p. 4253). Said Resolution adds that Portuguese SD should also foster opportunities for not only knowledge, communication and mutual collaboration, between Portugal and other countries, but also contacts between their peoples as well as public diplomacy (Presidência do Conselho de Ministros – Resolução do Conselho de Ministros Nº 78/2016, p. 4253).

The legal document under analysis determines that the internationalization of science, technology and higher education in Portugal should be led by rulers responsible for the areas of foreign affairs and science, technology and higher education (Presidência do Conselho de Ministros – Resolução do Conselho de Ministros Nº 78/2016, p. 4253). Portuguese embassies and consulates are assigned initiatives for promoting the nation's resources and opportunities, in the sphere of science and higher education, while highlighting the use of their sites (Presidência do Conselho de Ministros – Resolução do Conselho de Ministros Nº 78/2016, p. 4253). The Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education, through the Science and Technology Foundation and in conjunction with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can, at Portuguese embassies, when such is appropriate, set up postdoctoral researchers serving as scientific advisers (Presidência do Conselho de Ministros – Resolução do Conselho de Ministros Nº 78/2016, p. 4253). 

On the basis of the aforementioned Resolution, Pinto and Ferreira-Pereira (May 2023, p.10) point to the Atlantic Ocean and the Portuguese language and culture as priorities of Portugal's SD. Particularly targeted in this context are the Portuguese-Speaking African Countries (PSAC) and East Timor (Pinto, Ferreira-Pereira May 2023, p.10). Portugal's SD makes use of that which the European Union puts at its disposal to further its relations with the PSAC (Pinto, Ferreira-Pereira May 2023, p.16). With Portugal as a European Union Member-State, its ability to relate to the various Portuguese-speaking countries is positive for all parties involved (Pinto, Ferreira-Pereira May 2023, p.16).

For the Portuguese SD, the national scientific diaspora is relevant (Lacerda, et alii August 2, 2023). This occurs, for instance, with the development of a non-formal and non-hierarchical collaboration, in the time of Brexit, between Portuguese diplomats and the nation's scientific diaspora in the United Kingdom (Lacerda, et alii August 2, 2023). The Science and Technology Foundation is committed to forging relations with Portuguese scientists working abroad and to attracting them to jobs in their country of origin (Presidência do Conselho de Ministros – Resolução do Conselho de Ministros Nº 78/2016, p. 4253). The State Secretary's Office for the Portuguese Communities is tasked with stimulating and supporting academic / scientific associations overseas (Presidência do Conselho de Ministros – Resolução do Conselho de Ministros Nº 78/2016, p. 4253). As part of this, there are associations in several countries, such as the following: AGRAFr (France); AGRAPS (Switzerland); APEI Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg); ASPPA (Germany); Nordic Spot (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden); PAPS (United States of America and Canada); PARSUK (United Kingdom) (Pinto May-October 2022, p. 105). By maintaining some connection to Portugal, these associations can be important for this country's progress (Pinto May-October 2022, p. 114).



SD is increasingly important in the domain of foreign policy. The idea that there are global challenges that cannot be overcome by a single country on its own, but, rather, through international scientific cooperation, contributes toward SD's current importance. This kind of diplomacy can also be viewed as serving national interests. Indeed, in the field of science, there is cooperation and competition among countries. As a public diplomacy / soft power instrument, SD contributes toward the influence, attraction and international prestige of countries, regardless of their size, though the results at times take a while to appear.

In terms of both national and international organizations, SD capabilities need to be boosted. It is appropriate for professionals in the area of foreign policy to show interest in science / technology and for science-related professionals to also be interested in foreign affairs. Some conflicts of interest can arise between diplomats and scientists. The latter may fear being manipulated by politicians.

The statements whereby SD favors peace or that science is synonymous with peace could generate some controversy. On the one hand, in the sphere of SD, there are several players seeking to prevent war, by coming up with peaceful solutions to conflicts resulting from different national interests. On the other hand, as part of international relations, SD also includes hard power, which can be especially important in times of war. Still, even in times of tension between geopolitical adversaries, SD is assigned the ability to keep communication channels open.

SD is carried out differently in various parts of the world, depending on the specificities of different countries. In Portugal, with regard to SD, in terms of the Government, there is interministerial coordination, namely, for instance, between the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Considering Portugal's history, the SD of this member-state of the European Union favors relations with the Portuguese-Speaking African Countries and East Timor. Portugal's SD also seeks to make use of the Portuguese scientific diaspora.




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*This interview was conducted, via email, on February 18, 2024

**This interview was conducted, via email, on March 12, 2024


Photo by: Jorge Marinho

Published by Marinho Media Analysis / April 2, 2024


This piece was also published on the following sites:


- Diplomat Magazine (The Hague, The Netherlands) / April 9, 2024


- International Affairs Forum - Center for International Relations (Washington D.C., United States of America) / April 9, 2024


- University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) Blog / United States of America / April 18, 2024