Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Diplomacy, Italian Style

By Oscar Moze

Scientists should be working with diplomats in matters of foreign policy to resolve present-day global problems.

It is illusory to think that the resolution of complex global problems such as climate change, food and energy security should be exclusively the responsibility of diplomacy.

Rather, science and diplomacy should be seen as natural allies and instruments for dialogue and change. Scientists should be working in tandem with diplomats in matters of foreign policy where existing scientific knowledge and the outcomes of ongoing research can contribute directly to international understanding and resolution of present-day global problems.

Scientific prowess is a reflection of a nation’s “soft power” status. Medical research and astronomy are two examples of areas where Australia’s scientific leadership enhances its global reputation and influence. Nations – and their scientists – should capitalise upon such advantages by actively engaging in science diplomacy.

International collaboration is also a key for nations to remain competitive and adept in science, research and innovation. Science diplomacy is the perfect tool for promoting and nurturing such collaboration and showcasing a nation’s scientific and technological base.

International cooperation in the field of scientific research and technological innovation has for a long time been considered as a strategic component of Italian foreign policy. Italy’s commitment to active scientific diplomacy dates back to the 1970s (the Office of the Science Attaché in Canberra was activated in 1982), and the majority of attachés are seconded from Italian universities and research centres.

As formulated and promoted by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, there are three principal elements to Italy’s bilateral and multilateral science diplomacy.

At the bilateral level, a network of 24 scientific and technological attachés, operating from Italian embassies in 20 countries, support and promote bilateral scientific cooperation, as well as showcasing Italian science and technology. By the end of 2014 this network will be extended to include Mexico, South Africa and Vietnam.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs negotiates Executive Protocols on bilateral scientific and technological cooperation. These funded protocols specify in which areas Italy and the partner country will dedicate bilateral scientific research effort for the period of validity of the protocol, which is typically 2 or 4 years. Since 2000 Executive Protocols have been negotiated and signed with almost 50 countries.

With regard to Australia, scientific cooperation is enshrined in a cultural agreement signed in Rome in 1975. This was recently updated with the signing in Rome last year of a Memorandum of Understanding for scientific and technological cooperation.

Italy is also recognised as a leader in science diplomacy at the multilateral level, participating in international research infrastructures such as CERN, where the political and governance aspects of Italy’s participation are managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On our own home soil, an impressive number of international research centres and non-government organisations, located in and around the city of Trieste, are hosted and co-financed by Italy. This international “Trieste system” includes the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the International Centre for Science and Technology, the Third World Academy of Sciences as well as the Permanent Secretariat of the Inter Academy Panel.

These institutions host and train large numbers of researchers and students from around the world – since its inception in 1964 and until 2009, ICTP alone has been visited by 116,000 scientists from 184 countries, up to 50% from developing countries.

All of these institutions are governed and funded by organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the Italian Government via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and local authorities. These, together with other icons also located in Trieste, such as the International School for Advanced Studies and the national synchrotron, make the Trieste system a hotbed of international scientific collaboration.

Italy’s bilateral and multilateral science diplomacy is an ideal role model for nations wishing to leverage their research and innovation capabilities to support their foreign policy goals and vital national interests.

Professor Oscar Moze is Science and Technology Attaché at the Embassy of Italy, Canberra.