Science cooperation and technology transfer, either in their formal or informal capacities, have been integral parts of human civilization since time immemorial. Science diplomacy is a relatively new concept and is beginning to capture the intellectual imagination of the scholarly community from diverse disciplines, which include a rich tapestry of multi-disciplinary perspectives. The advancement of science for the last three centuries has been led by the West and so too has the concept of science diplomacy in its present context. The United States government’s Center for Science Diplomacy at the Association for the Advancement of American Science (AAAS) essentially pioneered science diplomacy. In addition, other institutions that can also be credited with this achievement are the Royal Society, United States Institute of Peace and University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. One of the interesting outcomes of this phenomenon is the attempt to promote peace between countries in conflict. This indeed is laudable, and good not only for science, but also for diplomacy as it provides a valuable platform to broaden and deepen their efficacy.
Alongside this new phenomenon is the recent growth of science and technology (S&T) capabilities in some of the developing countries like India and China. This is beginning to reconfigure the architecture of science diplomacy as they spread their wings of science cooperation across the length and breadth of the globe. For instance, India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) initialled an industrial contract with the French aviation company Avions de Transport Règional (ATR) for manufacturing turboprop planes in 2001. In the same year, China bid for its entry into the major international scientific research program at Alpha International Space Station as one of the important parts of its international scientific cooperation drive. Again, in the same year, four countries—two developed, France and Russia, and two from the developing world, India and China—bid to manufacture satellites for the Iranian government’s satellite program. This process of maturation of S&T capabilities in India and China is good for the growth of science in general, and science diplomacy in particular, since science, though developing in national contexts, is truly global.
In the context of the unfolding of these two phenomena imbued with immense possibilities, what is quintessentially pertinent to ask is: whether science diplomacy, led by the West and emulated by some of the developing countries, is contributing to the development of the “bottom of the pyramid.” Some sections of the scientific community may argue that this is not the job of science and the scientific community. This may be true, but it should be one of the central pieces of science diplomacy. While science diplomacy for peace is good, science diplomacy for development is equally important as it has the potential to minimize various sources of conflict. Science diplomacy, therefore, must not only work to minimize conflict and promote peace, but to find ways and means to build S&T capabilities in the developing world. The real challenge for both the West and countries like India and China is to factor development dimensions into the science diplomacy framework and make it wider in its scope and reach. In this direction, one of the concrete steps that the promoters and practitioners of science diplomacy could take is to incorporate Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) into their frameworks and thereby contribute to their accomplishment across the developing world.
D. Varaprasad Sekhar is Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at the Center for East Asian Studies of the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. He teaches graduate students a course on Chinese history and another on science and technology in China’s development. Three PhD and 10 M. Phil degrees have been awarded to students under his supervision. He was an ASIA (Asian Studies in Asia) Fellow at Peking University, Beijing in 2004. He was a member of the Editorial Board for the International Studies journal from 2004 until 2009. He has published research articles in journals and books as well as presenting papers in various international and national conferences.