Researching Peace: the Intersection of Science and Foreign Relations in Global Crisis and Beyond

By Dheera Dusanapudi

The COVID-19 pandemic came on the heels of a tumultuous political era: Brexit, a
controversial presidential impeachment, and anti-authoritarian protests in Hong Kong were only
a few of the most pressing events in an already momentous year. As shutdowns went into effect
across the globe, restrictions placed an uneasy toll on nations already in turmoil; in such an ever
changing crisis, during such an unpredictable period, it was accepted–expected, even–that
international collaboration during such a time would be near impossible. A Politico report from
early March 2020 remarked that even a “crisis that affects all of humanity does not necessarily
inspire international unity”(Toosi).

However, the necessity of at least scientific collaboration was clear: with the world
waiting with baited breath for a vaccine, many prominent health leaders and international
organizations called for solidarity, including former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of
Public Health Barry R. Bloom. In a Forbes report released in late April, Bloom argued that a
strong history of international collaboration between China and the US had led to breakthroughs
in COVID-19 research, noting that “Despite…global rivalries and trade wars, there are scientists
in China, the U.S. and other countries…committed to providing the best scientific evidence they
can.”(“Infectious Disease Expert: Scientists Need To Collaborate Across Borders To Fight The
Coronavirus Pandemic.”) Such sentiment is echoed in a report released this past May by the
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in which Secretary-General
Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi pushed for continued collaboration, noting that an early breakthrough, the
genome mapping of the virus, was accomplished through a joint effort with Chinese and
Australian scientists(“Why the Global Science Community Must Come and Stay Together
beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic”).

The importance of such partnerships is clear: with billions of lives at risk, international
collaboration is the only way to overcome the rapid spread of the pandemic. But there’s a hidden
benefit to scientific collaboration. Oft overlooked, the strengthening of international alliances
through collaborative research, known as science diplomacy, is a crucial aspect of increased
scientific solidarity–and our best chance to overcome international hostilities and strengthen
alliances while encouraging vital scientific research.

Science diplomacy is, at its core, about interaction. As scientists from all over the world
collaborate and combat the crises of the day, they form a partnership that strengthens
transnational goodwill and cooperation in the face of a larger threat–a partnership that, as a
report from the World Economic Forum notes, can influence policy at a domestic and
international level (Soler, Marga Gual, and Tolullah Oni). The report also references the
international effort behind worldwide smallpox vaccinations, noting that “scientific
achievements rely on political cooperation…If a single nation had chosen not to vaccinate… it
would have endangered the entire world.” The same principle applies now: mass vaccination is
crucial in stemming the spread of the virus, and political barriers that delay or even stop their
distribution must be addressed, often through the “short-term cessation of hostilities” the report
mentions (Soler, Marga Gual, and Tolullah Oni). However, the chance at brief peace presents
unique opportunities for reform. Yes, science diplomacy is necessary to meet the demands of a
current and post-COVID-19 political and medical landscape, but it could also be the world’s new
way forward in attempting to mend broken relations between countries.

Of course, such ambitious projects require an institutional framework before they can
begin to address scientific issues, let alone policy. Luckily, a blueprint is provided through
government sponsored programs that actively work with foreign nations in order to create a joint
scientific initiative.The legitimacy and resources provided by government sponsorship have the
ability to produce research that redefines a scientific field–and in turn, involved nations are
uniquely poised to capitalize on the diplomatic opportunity provided by large scale scientific

And it is this partnership that spells hope for the current issues at hand and the
post-COVID 19 world. Increased scientific collaboration not only speeds up current research into
a vaccine, but works preventatively to both further broader research and strengthen country
relations, so new global crises can be addressed quickly and cooperatively. In 2002, the RAND
corporation think tank released a report examining the value of four different scientific
collaboration programs.The report states that, beyond the obvious political “goodwill” from
frequent interaction with other countries, “participation in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change] helped give credibility to U.S. negotiators working on international climate
change negotiations”(Wagner, Caroline S., et al. 44); extend the same concept to the pandemic,
and it is clear that governmental involvement in international COVID-19 research will strengthen
diplomats’ negotiations regarding the future of global health legislation. Ultimately, encouraging
science diplomacy would combat health crises, propel groundbreaking new research, and address
policy concerns that constrain global health efforts.

The question, then, is how to quickly and effectively strengthen existing scientific
collaboration programs, while minimizing costs and maximizing gain. One of the most

prominent obstacles to governmental sponsored programs is often funding–indeed, the RAND
report recognized that “no issue is quite as divisive and troublesome as identifying who will fund
a new program”(Wagner, Caroline S., et al. 25). But barriers posed by finding a source of
funding do not mean a government-sponsored science diplomacy program is unviable; indeed,
varied funding sources can make such programs commercially successful. The RAND report
notes that funding sources could include a mix of government and industry funds, international
sponsors, and universities–and while the cost of such collaboration is often substantial, the
benefits extend beyond political capital; the report notes that successful programs “carry
additional benefits for governments… includ[ing] sharing the costs of research… [and] gaining
access to resources that might not otherwise be available”(Wagner, Caroline S., et al.16).The
global connection provided through such programs has the added benefit of making the world’s
resources accessible to every nation.

Science diplomacy is hardly quick or easy: a complex combination of foreign relations
and global scientific networks never is. But it represents a remarkable connection of research and
policy, one that breaks political barriers and encourages innovative scientific research. As we
reach new landmarks in COVID-19 research and contemplate what shape the future will take, it
is important to remember that what we face is a global threat–and so, a collaborative global
network is our best hope.

Works Cited

Bloom, Barry R. “Infectious Disease Expert: Scientists Need To Collaborate Across Borders To
Fight The Coronavirus Pandemic.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 29 Apr. 2020,

Kituyi, Mukhisa. “Why the Global Science Community Must Come and Stay Together beyond
the Coronavirus Pandemic.” United Nations Conference on Trade and Development,
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 6 May 2020,

Soler, Marga Gual, and Tolullah Oni. “Here’s How ‘Science Diplomacy’ Can Help Us Contain
COVID-19.” World Economic Forum, World Economic Forum, 5 May 2020,

Toosi, Nahal. “World Leaders Are Fighting the Virus. And Each Other.” Politico, Politico
Magazine, 21 Mar. 2020,

Wagner, Caroline S., Linda Staheli, James Kadtke, Richard Silberglitt, and Anny Wong,
“Linking Effectively: International Cooperation in Science and Technology.” RAND
Corporation, RAND Corporation, 2002.

About the author:

Dheera Dusanapudi is a high school senior from Folsom, California interested in international relations and developmental aid. She enjoys learning about the ‘human’ side of global politics, from country level diplomacy to family histories.

About The Author

Co-President, Harvard Tech Review

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