Johns Hopkins University Press

This article explores the co-shaping of global challenges and governance of science and technology through time. It aims to address the issue of governance of science and technology as governing through local (regional, national) and international negotiations and institutions. At the center of the analysis is the entanglement of technology, science, diplomacy, and diplomatic relations, which we explore through the concept of science diplomacy. We argue that the transnational perspective allows scholars to connect the local and global scales, and conclude with a reflection on how historical perspectives on the governance of science and technology in periods of social and economic crisis can provide valuable insights to policy-makers.

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“To everyone who is shaping the future today, science and technology have become a crucial tool to build strategic leverage in diplomacy and international affairs. This new role emerges from a redefinition of global challenges such as climate change, food and water security, global health and digitalization. Scientific values of rationality, transparency and universality can help underpin a better global governance and build trust between nations and societies.”1

“The fundamental problem of democracy today is quite simply the survival of agency in this increasingly technocratic universe.”2

Who defines what the global challenges are and how to cope with them? How is democracy at stake in this process? This article is about the co-shaping of global challenges and governance of science and technology through time. It aims to address the issue of governance of science and technology as governing through local (regional, national) and international negotiations and institutions. Governance is approached as a complex, multistakeholder process configured by the contingencies and temporalities of the historical context and changes in power dynamics. It is conceived as a sociopolitical process in which science and technology acquired different representations and different degrees of legitimacy. At the center of the analysis is the entanglement of technology, science, and diplomacy, which we explore through the concept of science diplomacy. We argue that the transnational perspective allows us to connect the local and global scales, and we conclude with a reflection on how historical perspectives on the governance of science and technology in periods of social and economic crisis can provide valuable insights to policymakers.

Setting the Agenda for Science Diplomacy

In November 2018 a nonprofit association, SciTech DiploHub, launched its campaign to make Barcelona the first city in the world to adopt a science diplomacy strategy. The idea is presented in a manifesto and an online video: facing the great challenges of the contemporary world, it is urgent to mobilize the resources of science and technology; the effort must be collective and go beyond borders; the various actors involved must hence develop a foreign policy in this area to reach out to distant partners.3 This foreign policy is called “science and technology diplomacy.” Knowing that global cities, already diplomatic players in their own right, are the eminent territories of science and technology, they must combine these trends and engage in a strategy of science and technology diplomacy themselves, for the benefit of humanity. Calls of this kind have multiplied in the last ten years, from research and higher education institutions to organizations [End Page 319] such as the European Commission, which, through the European Union’s commissioner for science, research, and innovation, in 2015 defined science diplomacy as key to addressing global challenges such as climate change or energy security.4 Europe, which managed to overcome its internal divisions and unite after the Second World War through science, among other fields, should be able to use science again to forge new global partnerships and establish itself as the great transnational problem-solver.5 The vision of Commissioner Moedas is published in a journal, Science and Diplomacy, edited by the Center for Science Diplomacy, which since its creation in 2008 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science managed to transform the concept of science diplomacy into a buzzword. Science diplomacy as a rather recent actor category is a linguistic resource for action for those (scientists, diplomats, policymakers) willing to act at the intersection of science and diplomacy, and to transform these intersection as a proper field of action for them. Making implicit practices explicit helps to attract money and attention as well as to streamline possible tensions. Scholars using the concept must be aware of that.

Most of the public discourses about science diplomacy convey an irenic vision: adding science and knowledge to the ingredients of international political relations will be of benefit to humankind, since science works for universal knowledge and its value is not diminished by the fact that it is shared. Science diplomacy becomes the name of the foreign policy of technological solutionism, which tends to reduce social and political issues to scientifically and technologically resolvable equations.6 While science diplomacy as a contemporary actors’ category has been linked to governance patterns of global challenges in public health, energy, and environment—to mention only some of the sectors with challenging futures—historical research can help us think critically on this issue by unraveling the complex historical processes of building transnational agreements and organizations. Contemporary historical accounts can unravel the connection of science diplomacy with hard power and military or economic domination. By historicizing science diplomacy, historians show how science and technology acquired local, national, transnational, and global meanings and legitimacy. Historical research is showing the varieties of the negotiated scientific and technological solutions as well as the societal and political priorities (let’s call them grand challenges) inscribed in them. Furthermore, it unravels the role of experts (and counterexpertise) in setting diplomatic agreements by defining scientific and technological standards, international legal ontologies, and configuring social representations that would legitimize scientific and technological solutions of a specific genre. Historical reconstructions can show clearly (1) the way that science and technology [End Page 320] were used by historical actors to achieve transnational and international collaborations and political exchanges; (2) the role of ordinary diplomats as well as science diplomats to set technological regulations and scientific international collaborations; (3) the modes and frameworks where science and technology acquired political legitimacy by securing geopolitical orders of domination or peace; and (4) the function and agency of transnational, international, and global techno-scientific networks and institutions in developing and promoting regional and transnational geopolitics. Historical accounts can revise the public perceptions of democracy and diplomacy as mutually exclusive. They provide insights into the varieties of liberal democracies, the multiple enactments and the role of science diplomacy in shaping or reproducing the priorities of liberal representative democracies. Historical literacy about diplomats, scientists, and international regulatory bodies can provide a critical understanding to technocratic ideology and promote more inclusive and democratic credentials to science diplomacy processes. The historiography of science diplomacy contributes in introducing both a nuanced and more complete understanding of representative liberal democracy and its dominance, and can empower professionals, expert diplomats, policymakers, and citizens to promote more participatory and deliberative schemes of decision-making at the diplomatic level.

Science in Science Diplomacy: Exploring Tensions on What Scientific and Technological Relations Are About

A realists’ take on science diplomacy stresses that it primarily serves state interests.7 It often means espionage, information advantage in negotiations, attractivity, or even military and economic domination over others.8 In this perspective, international cooperation is an appendix, resulting from the necessity to cope with problems impossible to solve unilaterally.9 By contrast, the more idealistic view of science and technology holds that it offers the means for mutual understanding, rapprochement of human societies, and even a world government, and it is also deeply rooted historically. Since the improvement of postal networks and the advent of the telegraph in the nineteenth century, new communications tools are recurrently presented as means of communion and concord, in line with the liberal credo that the more countries exchange, the less likely they are to go to war.

An emerging technocratic ideal further fueled the view that the world would be better off if science replaced diplomacy, if men and women of knowledge conceived the rules of world government. This was the pre– World War I dream of Dutch physician Pieter Eijkman, who (according to [End Page 321] Geert Somsen) “criticized mainstream pacifists for relying only on moral appeals and hope for brotherhood between the nations. Science, he argued, offered a much more secure road to world peace for it simply needed international cooperation” to function.10 Eijkman created a movement for a World Capital, where scientists and experts would forge solutions to global issues and enforce them as law. The Hague in this vision would headquarter international scientific academies with shared research facilities, next to a Peace Palace housing international arbitration, together ensuring both scientific progress and peace. Although the International Court of Justice indeed has its home in The Hague’s Peace Palace, the rest of this vision never came into being.

After the First World War, international scientific and expert assemblies did emerge and multiply, informed by this background ideology, but they did not replace diplomatic relations. Instead, both coexisted and even co-shaped. Typical of the time was Albert Thomas’s plan to build Europe on transborder infrastructures. The influential French director of the International Labour Organization promoted the idea of Europe as not only a political entity but also something built on public works. Together with Italian engineer Piero Puricelli, he persuaded the League of Nations, a new international body, to establish a Technical Committee on Communications and Transit (comprised of civil engineers and member state representatives), whose brief, notably, was to create a vision and policy of motorways connecting Europe.11

At the same time, new international scientific cooperation institutions emerged and functioned as soft power for securing international political cooperation. Here too science and diplomacy were co-shaped. Such was the case of the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation, founded in 1924 and which after the Second World War became the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).12 The IICI and UNESCO nurtured the emergence of major new international research infrastructure, where national interests and internationalism coalesced. The American policy is undoubtedly the best known. Krige in particular showed that the U.S. State Department used science and scientific cooperation to shape Europe after the Second World War. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN, 1954) became emblematic of science organizations used to legitimize specific science priorities and policies in the European continent during the Cold War.13 Similar institutions continued to emerge regularly while exceeding European borders. The International [End Page 322] Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) “was established as an East-West institute by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972, with the founding members being six countries from the West and six from the East, the two Germanys among them.”14 The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), initiated in 1985, today engages China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States in a thirty-five-year collaboration to build and operate an experimental magnetic fusion device. Modeling on the creation of CERN, the European Union in cooperation with UNESCO promoted SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) in Jordan as of 2004 and today is betting on PRIMA (Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area)—“the biggest joint research and innovation programme in the history of the Euromed region”—to support sustainable management of water and agro-food systems.15 These are monuments of collaborative science diplomacy. In parallel, states also started signing bilateral scientific and technical diplomatic agreements, which are often the preferred way for them to create or resume constructive relations—the cases of France and the Soviet Union in 1966 or later of Great Britain and China are emblematic.16

Borders have provided the setting for transnational science and technology conflicts or collaborations. In postwar Europe, the emergence of a nuclear imaginary as a viable and effective solution to increasing energy needs shaped the setting for bilateral diplomatic relations and, on several occasions, conflicts between neighboring countries. In the 1960s the Portuguese Estado Novo and the Spanish Francoist regime had developed informal science diplomacy relations before the formal bilateral agreement in 1971.17 Later on in the 1980s the siting of a nuclear power station or a nuclear waste disposal prompted diplomatic negotiations. Science diplomacy unfolded at both the transnational and the supranational level of the European Commission and international organizations, as in the conflict between Portugal and Spain in the mid-1980s.18

Today, in the age of the Anthropocene, will humankind be rescued from its own hubris by entrusting an Earth Ship government to geoscientists and geoengineers? Some historians oppose this scenario with the arms of Clio, showing that the past contains a host of alternatives to such technocratic visions.19 In Western Europe, it is well known that the rise of environmentalism [End Page 323] in the 1970s questioned technocratic visions and policies built around nuclear power.20 New research on “technocritics” highlights that they appeared much earlier but were silenced.21

A question is whether these technocritics addressed technocratic internationalism. In his introduction to this Forum, Erik van der Vleuten argues that more than often technological solutions to past societal problems became in turn part and parcel of present time challenges. In evolutionary approaches of technological change, science diplomacy features as a catalyst of transnational technological and scientific responses to social, economic, and political problems, and as such can be questioned by those criticizing technocracy and the technocratic understanding of the problems based on the (unforeseen) technological consequences. What is certain is that from the 1970s and more intensively after the Chernobyl accident, environmental movements and particularly NGOs functioned as critical expert bodies, securing transnational circulation of knowledge and expertise and intervening in regulatory bodies and policymaking organizations.22 Political activism contributed to the making of national, transnational, and international law and regulations for the governance of technological risks. In the 1990s transnational activism focused on uncertainties of genetic modification of organisms, positing genetic contamination and framing GMOs as inherently polluting entities instead of a response to the global challenge of securing food for an expanding world population. Under the pressure of Greenpeace as well as of international consumer associations, the criterion of “substantial equivalence” was challenged with implications for European food regulation as well as for the strategies of a retail food industry that removed genetically modified ingredients from their products.23 Food and environmental activism questioned the content and the validity of the chemical tests and analysis for the identification of the GMOs and their comparison with ordinary nonmodified organisms. They framed the problem differently and contributed in the negotiations and the science diplomacy processes within international organizations like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). It is important to understand that science diplomacy as a process of governing biotechnological entities involved a critical stance toward scientific objectivity and scientific proof-making where scientists and counterexpertise from NGOs performed conjointly, thus clearly posing the question of technical [End Page 324] and scientific democracy in interrelated local, national, and international regulations.

Contemporary approaches in history and social sciences have also stressed the importance of international NGOs in questioning proprietary knowledge regimes and in shaping regulations and laws relevant to technologies deemed inherently uncertain and risky. Greenpeace, for instance, in the early 1990s questioned the patentability of plants and of bioengineering productions, pointing out the social and moral issues entailed by the establishment of global monopolies and unsettling the use of homogeneous patent legal systems for these monopolistic interests.24 Transnational law-making relevant to toxicity regulations, atmospheric quality standards, and health and safety standards in the food industry involves laborious negotiations. Transnational law is an entity to which several stakeholders and actors (states, engineering associations, diplomats, courts, companies, NGOs, etc.) contribute. At the same time, the law shapes specific sociopolitical orders in relation to science and technology and configures ontological, business, and trade boundaries.25 Defining the meaning of “substantial equivalence” in European legal culture was a sociopolitical process that engaged representative and deliberative democracy.26 These different trends complexified the very meaning of science in science diplomacy.

Diplomacy in Science Diplomacy: Historical Boundary Working

The question of who does diplomacy is an old one. The Royal Society of London is proud of having a foreign secretary since 1723, decades before the British government created the post of foreign minister.27 Diplomatic professionals have been trying ever since, and particularly since the beginning of the twentieth century, to impose themselves not as monopoly holders but as the control towers of the foreign policy of their states, whether implemented by public or private actors.

In the nineteenth century, they saw more or less formal groupings of engineers, technical experts from public administration, and company managers establishing international regulatory and legislative regimes for the then-emerging technologies. Those engineers and experts actively shaped priorities and defined both infrastructure decisions and social and political options. They conducted a practical “politics of comparisons” whose rhetoric supported, debated, and legitimized their visions.28 Through continual analysis and comparisons of international experiences and cases, [End Page 325] they could establish technical solutions and legitimized their priorities as well as promoted internationalism through large-scale transnational and international infrastructure.

This trend culminated with the birth of international governmental and nongovernmental organizations dedicated to science and technology, beginning with the International Telegraph Union. There, scientists and experts managed to carve out space to self-organize and sometimes to govern their own field at a transnational level. Behind the veil of universalism, they created diplomatic arenas negotiating who was to take part in managing and advancing science and technology, how power was to be distributed, how science and technology were to be delineated from politics, and more. Neutral states were at the forefront of this process. Switzerland, in particular, worked to both neutralize technology and render neutrality scientific.29 If the actual organization came to be framed and controlled by diplomats most of the time, these organizations evolved afterward as quasi-autonomous territories in the international landscape. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1907 set up a department responsible for political oversight in the face of three dozen intergovernmental unions and more than 400 nongovernmental unions that could be documented.30 Back then, the diplomats saw three cross-cutting stakes: the need for ministerial coordination, the defense of French as a language of cooperation, and the localization of institutions in Paris.31

Meanwhile, ministries of foreign affairs increasingly incorporated science and technology within the field of diplomatic action. Science made its way within the diplomatic corps itself. American zoologist Charles War-dell Stiles is said to be the first science attaché, posted at the U.S. embassy in Berlin in 1898, to counter German allegations tracing trichinosis to American pork and challenging “American competence in microscopic technology.”32 It was during the Cold War, though, that the presence of science and technology in the American Foreign Service boomed.33

The development of diplomatic expertise in science and technology matters at a European level has not been studied so far. We know that, gradually, embassies of European countries have professionalized the role of science counselors and attachés.34 Over time, specialized profiles emerge on atomic, aerospace, and later environmental and climatic issues. Beyond the function of attaché, many other figures have articulated and still articulate science and diplomacy, from the first Portuguese ambassador to the [End Page 326] United States, the abbot and scientist José Correia da Serra, the “European Franklin,” to generations of archaeologists and the more recent appointment of a Danish “tech ambassador” in 2017.35

In this latter case, the ambassador is posted not with the government of another state but with business leaders—primarily those of Silicon Valley. According to the Danish ministry, “TechPlomacy is . . . a recognition of the political and global influence that the tech industry has in the twenty-first century. Technology will contribute to solving some of the most acute global challenges and bring about a positive transformation with enormous potential for people around the world. Yet rapid developments in areas such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, Internet of Things and cyber security also raise fundamental issues as to the future of public policy, regulation and global governance.”36 Clearly conscious of technology’s double role as governed and governor, states are nowadays eager to deal with tech companies as new powerful partners in science, technology, and, more and more, innovation diplomacy.37 Great Britain and the Netherlands renamed their science and technology experts in embassies “innovation attachés.”

More than ever, foreign affairs ministries mobilize themselves on the theme of scientific diplomacy to establish themselves as the coordinating and even steering body, while the stakeholders’ landscape has become more complex. Some have published reports clearly showing their intentions, like France in 2013 or Spain in 2016.38 Some ministries are also recruiting science advisers to foster science in diplomacy.

Toward Historically Informed Policies

Today’s grand societal challenges as well as critical events and severe weather incidents due to climate change or industrial crises and accidents call for historical understanding and reconstruction of past examples, establishing analogues, or uncovering common structural dynamics. For the last twenty or so years, historians of technology, economic historians and scholars in the science and technology studies have stressed the relevance of history and past developments in shaping technological change [End Page 327] and innovation processes. It is indicative that the field of transition studies, which combines approaches from the evolutionary economics and the social and cultural construction of technology, has stressed the importance of path-dependence in the making of sociotechnical regimes and their transitions. Based on historical narratives scholarship in transition studies has drawn insights about the regime configuration and change while the historical cases studies have enriched the empirical basis of sociotechnical transitions that have been developed to link the theoretical approaches and frameworks with policy concerns.39 The UK-based research network History and Policy ( has contributed substantially in making history relevant to public policies and to policy makers as well as in influencing journalists’ approaches to historical events and their socio-political relevance. Leading historians Jo Guildi and David Armitage, in their book entitled The History Manifesto, have argued for the importance of long-term historical reconstructions and narratives in shaping contemporary understandings and policies relevant to societal challenges and problems.40

The history and sociology of technology policy or of innovations can each be enriched by a transnational perspective linking democratic and diplomatic issues (in particular to reveal infrastructures as the material conditions from which specific governance regimes spring). Taking the governance of transnational technologies as transnational governing through technologies, we can enrich our understanding of European construction as well as of Europe’s global linkages. Through this approach—pinpointing trans-national geopolitical dynamics as well as the technologies in use and their function in governing relations, populations, and products—we can better discern the role of Europe in periods of crisis.

For a more policy-relevant European history of science and technology, historians can contribute by unraveling complexity and contingency but also by introducing typologies of:

  • • diplomatic patterns in technoscientific challenges

  • • transnational responses to technoscientific crisis and disasters

  • • transnational law- and regulation-making in periods of uncertainty

  • • patterns of epistemic internationalism in relation to innovation, science, and technology.

Moreover, to contribute to policy reflection, historiography of science and technology needs to promote interaction both with other scientific disciplines [End Page 328] and with stakeholders including civil society actors. Engaging with stakeholders will not only secure making the history of science and technology diplomacy more relevant but also secure historiographic sensitivity to contemporary concerns, contemporary challenges, and ultimately its completeness by critically integrating the spontaneous histories of stake-holders into meaningful historical narratives.

The European Commission presently wants to leverage the transnational research and innovation potential of the European Union in order to play its role on the global political scene. A cluster of three multiyear international and interdisciplinary research and innovation projects is funded in this view, dealing with the facets and prospects of European science diplomacy. Among them, InsSciDE (Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe; gives a large place to history and to stakeholder interaction, organizing not only interdisciplinary and transnational research but also dialogue with practitioners, whether diplomats or scientists, about cases of science, technology, and foreign relations and their coordination in Europe since the nineteenth century. InsSciDE’s ambition is to reveal the variety of national experiences past and present, thus informing a political theory of science diplomacy as well as the strategy to be developed for the European Union in the twenty-first century.

Stathis Arapostathis

Stathis Arapostathis is assistant professor of history of science and technology in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. He has written on the law, science, and technology relations, the history of intellectual property in science and technology, the history of engineering expertise in governing sociotechnical change, the history of environment and technology, the transnational history of technological systems, as well as the role of history in policymaking and sociotechnical transitions.

Léonard Laborie

Léonard Laborie is a research fellow at CNRS (UMR Sirice, Paris). He is deputy coordinator of the project “Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe” (InsSciDE, funded through European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under grant agreement no. 770523, 2018–2021).


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The authors thank Erik van der Vleuten for setting this “grand challenges” agenda in motion and all participants in the workshops he organized in Vught for inputs. The authors are also grateful to Pascal Griset for comments and support and to Claire Mays for reading earlier versions and making critical comments that clarified the argument of the article.


1. Barcelona Manifesto, November 2018.

12. Jean-Jacques Renoliet, L’UNESCO oubliée. On UNESCO’s science-related activities, see also: Soixante ans de science à l’UNESCO, 1945–2005 (Paris: UNESCO, 2009).

25. This approach has been dubbed as the “law as technology” approach by Mario Biagioli; see Mario Biagioli and Marius Buning, “Technologies of the Law.”

37. Innovation diplomacy marks a strong relationship with economic diplomacy, namely, the defense and promotion of economic interests, which “puts issues like trade in high tech products, IP ownership and protection, and standardization on the foreign policy agenda.” Jos Leijten, “Exploring the Future,” 20.

38. French Foreign Affairs Ministry, Directorate-General of Global Affairs, Development, and Partnerships, Report 2013: Science Diplomacy for France (; Spain: Informe sobre diplomacia científica, technológica y de innovación (

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