Coping During Difficult Times through Science Diplomacy

by | Jun 12, 2024 | Blog

Science diplomacy is an approach that provides promise to resolving political conflict. It brings together the objectivity and collaborative nature of science with the collaborative nature of diplomacy to advance solutions to regional and global challenges. Science Training Encouraging Peace (STEP) is a science diplomacy organization working to bridge divides between Israelis and Palestinians.

What is science diplomacy?

The idea of bringing together science and diplomacy developed in the post-World War II era. State actors were the initiators of a top-down approach. The term “science diplomacy” came into prominence in 2005. Today, science diplomacy has become both an academic discipline and a diplomatic framework.  Regional and global challenges have brought scientists and diplomats together to address COVID, climate change, water shortages, and food insecurity.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has defined the concept from several perspectives. “Science in diplomacy” informs foreign policy decisions with scientific advice. “Diplomacy for science” facilitates international scientific cooperation. “Science for diplomacy” uses the intrinsic nature of scientific collaboration to improve international relations between countries. The concept has expanded to include a bottom-up approach to solving political divides by involving non-state actors

STEP and Middle East Support for Science Diplomacy

STEP fits the “science for diplomacy” category from the bottom-up. STEP Fellows are enrolled in accredited graduate programs in the sciences at Israeli universities. By bringing together student pairs of researchers (non-state actors), STEP seeks to improve relations between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. The key is the people-to-people connection. Pairs of Fellows get to know and trust each other through shared experience and joint research. The STEP alumni network supports future collaboration. Ultimately, STEP graduates may work in positions that inform policy decisions and facilitate transnational scientific collaboration. This is crucial to overcoming problems that know no borders, such as zoonotic diseases or water use.

There are other science diplomacy organizations like STEP in and outside of the region. Organizations may differ in the age groups they serve, length of commitment or study and research topics. Examples are the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Tech2Peace, Our Generation Speaks (OGS) and Middle East Entrepreneurs for Tomorrow (MEET). Like STEP, most of these organizations connect graduates through alumni networks.  Several engage in community outreach activities, extending the benefit of science to local communities.

However, the STEP model is unique. STEP Fellows work together long term for the full length of a master’s or PhD degree, or 2-4 years, and interact at least weekly, but often daily. Not only do STEP pairs get to know one another, but many have become good friends. STEP has provided hope in these difficult times. In the words of one Palestinian student after October 7, “Membership in the STEP community offers me valuable support and opens up prospects to collaborate academically with the other side, fostering a vision for potential future collaboration at a governmental level.” An Israeli alumna said, “STEP gave me a friend for life.”

STEP will not be alone in the region. More importantly, there is a context for sustaining science diplomacy in the Middle East. There are models for collaboration through research labs and science networks. Also, of note is the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). Launched in 2008, the UfM is dedicated to strengthening and sustaining science diplomacy among all the countries of the European Union and 16 countries of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.

All the organizations listed here have committed to continue their work. In the words of one STEP faculty member. “In such dark times, it is most important to keep the bridges between the two populations. Working together preserves the hope that we can live and thrive together in our region.”