Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Can Leverage Soft Power

By Kaye Basford

Australia is well-placed to use the expertise, networks and infrastructure of our science, technology and innovation sectors to leverage international influence.

American political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in the 1980s, a term that helps explain how China quietly became a dominant global force. Soft power refers to the ability for a country to cement its position as a global leader – without force or coercion.

But unlike “hard power”, which we think of in terms of military might, soft power cannot be singularly measured. Nye splits it into three categories: cultural, ideological and institutional. And this is where science diplomacy comes in.

Science diplomacy – the use of science and technology in furthering diplomatic relationships among people in different places for the benefit of all involved – is an untapped opportunity for Australia to fortify our soft power.

Australia is well-placed to use the expertise, networks and infrastructure of our science, technology and innovation sectors to leverage international influence through building and maintaining trusted partnerships.

These engagement activities also facilitate the development of lasting personal, institutional and business relationships. Importantly, these relationships can outlive political cycles. My personal experience is that many international colleagues with whom I have collaborated have become lifelong friends.

The strength of these sectors depend on the effectiveness of our international engagement. But we must remember that international engagement is a long-term investment to build trusted and culturally sensitive relationships at the personal, institutional and diplomatic levels.

If the Australian government wishes to enhance its soft power capabilities and reach, and to exercise influence effectively, consistent funding is required for meaningful, long-term science, research technology and innovation engagement between Australia and key international players.

International science and innovation partnerships extend our research and development output and impact, contributing to a soft power objective by opening access to world-leading expertise, infrastructure, markets, investment and funding programs.

This science and innovation engagement includes collaboration among scientists and engineers, between individual businesses and among organisations such as research institutions and industry sectors.

As a learned academy, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering has a unique ability to engage with overseas stakeholders to better Australia’s science and innovation diplomacy. The Academy’s Fellows bring extensive networks and experience in working with partner countries, and these capabilities can be used to further Australian interests and diplomatic goals.

We have provided input to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s review on soft power, and will attend a soft power roundtable discussion on science and research for their review.

We highlight how we must embrace global technology change and its inevitable disruption to secure our economic future. To take full advantage of these opportunities, our innovation industries need to be globally connected to remain competitive and, of course, relevant.

This means we need a sustained strategy for building programs for delivering soft power. The effectiveness and efficiency of international cooperation is better when programs align with national priorities.

So Australian engagement must not only be global in scope and include long-standing ties with USA and Europe, but also needs targeted activities to strengthen ties with Asia and other regions where economies and technological innovation capabilities are growing rapidly.

International engagement is also essential for national public-good activities like environmental monitoring and prediction, and disaster management and mitigation.

To ensure Australia is globally competitive by 2030, the Academy strongly supports the proposed whole-of-government approach, and calls for bipartisan support for ongoing stable investment in facilitate independent, apolitical institutions, such as Australia’s learned academies, to sustain existing and forge new international linkages for the economic and social benefit of Australia.


Professor Kaye Basford FTE is the Vice-President (International Engagement) for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. This article draws extensively from the Academy’s submission to the DFAT Soft Power Review produced by a working party chaired by Prof Mike Miller AO FTE.