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Episode 5 – Preventing Crisis: Science Diplomacy and Track Two Organizations

ISC Presents: Science in Times of Crisis released its fifth and final episode. To wrap up the series, we invited ISC President Peter Gluckman and former Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova to discuss the realities of science diplomacy.

ISC Presents: Science in Times of Crisis is a 5 part podcast series exploring what living in a world of crisis and geopolitical instability means for science and scientists around the world.

In our final, fifth episode, we are joined by the ISC President Sir Peter Gluckman and Irina Bokova, Bulgarian politician and a two-term former Director-General of UNESCO.

We explore the importance of informal and non-governmental channels in maintaining and building international scientific collaborations, the role of informal diplomatic channels such as science and culture in building and maintaining peace, the realities of science diplomacy in practice and the importance of ordinary scientists in fostering scientific collaboration.


We exist at a time in which war, civil strife, disasters and climate change impact almost every corner of the globe and crisis is, in many ways, an inevitability. Paired with this are the sensitive geopolitics that shape the way in which policymakers and governments prepare for and react to those crises.

I’m Holly Sommers and in this 5-part podcast series from the International Science Council we will explore the implications for science and scientists of a world characterized by crises and geopolitical instability.

Having discussed history, current clashes and ongoing crises we turn, for our final episode, to the future.

Is traditional diplomacy failing? From unequal vaccine rollouts to poor climate change progress and ongoing global conflict, it seems as though the answer could be yes. In our final episode we want to explore the future role of science in times of crisis, and so we turn to the growing role of so-called ‘Track Two Organisations’, such as the ISC. We explore the importance of these informal and non-governmental channels in maintaining and building international scientific collaborations, the role of informal diplomatic channels such as science and culture in building and maintaining peace, the realities of science diplomacy in practice and the importance of ordinary scientists in fostering scientific collaboration.

Our first guest today is Sir Peter Gluckman, the President of the International Science Council. Peter is an internationally recognized biomedical scientist, and currently heads Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland. From 2009 to 2018 he was first Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and from 2012 to 2018 he was the Science Envoy for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Peter trained as a pediatrician and biomedical scientist and co-chaired the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. Peter has written and spoken extensively on science-policy, science diplomacy, and science-society interactions. In 2016, he received the AAAS award in Science Diplomacy.

As a term which is becoming more frequently utilized, both in the scientific and in policymaking spaces, I just wanted firstly to ask you what, in your own words, is Track Two diplomacy?

Peter Gluckman: Well, Track Two diplomacy is where relationships are developed informally through non-governmental organizations. Track One diplomacy is when you’re having diplomats interacting with other diplomats; track two diplomacy, and they’re not totally independent, which we’ll discuss, is when you have organizations which are not formally governmental organizations interacting for the benefit of international diplomacy of multilateral relationships, reducing tension, etc.

Holly Sommers:  And so in that, in that sense, with Track One and traditional diplomatic systems, what are the shortcomings of those that perhaps Track Two diplomacy from organizations such as the International Science Council can help address and how do they do that in practice?

Peter Gluckman: Well, firstly, I think we need to look at history and point out that they’re not independent. So, sometimes Track Two diplomacy follows from Track One diplomacy, and sometimes Track One diplomacy follows from Track Two diplomacy. So, a good example of Track One diplomacy leading to Track Two diplomacy was the formation of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, where Kosygin and Johnson agreed that science can be used to reduce the tension between the two countries the two superpowers at the time, but they turned it over to the academies of Russia and the United States to actually work out how to do it. So they shifted rapidly to attract a Track Two development of what is now a very important institution, the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis. On the other hand, Track Two diplomacy can lead to Track One outcomes. And the best example of that was the International Geophysical Year of 1957, when the predecessor of the International Science Council, ICSU, promoted international research related to the Antarctic, the first time there had been multilateral activities coordinated in the Antarctic. And that led two years later to the Antarctic Treaty, which many regard as the pinnacle of science diplomacy. So, it goes in both directions, and we shouldn’t keep them entirely separate. At the end, scientists can maintain relationships, they can build activities, but when it involves multiple countries, diplomats eventually get involved more often than not.

Holly Sommers: On a personal level, you were the former science adviser to the New Zealand Prime Minister. So you’ve experienced really how science diplomacy operates up close and personally. I just wondered, what did you find were the greatest challenges during that time as science advisor, especially at that nexus of science and policy?

Peter Gluckman: Well, I think, at the end of the day, scientists need to understand that policy is made on the basis of many things in addition to the evidence. And if you understand that, and accept that under many situations, other considerations will take priority; but your job is to make sure that the executive of government understands the implications, their options. And equally, if you think about science and diplomacy, one of the values judgment for a country is their national interest. And therefore, one’s got to work to show that it’s in their national self-interest to work on the issues of the global commons. And sometimes that works well, as it did in the case of the Montreal Ozone Protocol a number of years ago. But other times, it’s not worked so well, as we’ve seen in the early days of the COVID pandemic, both in terms of managing the acute stages of a pandemic, and particularly over vaccine distribution, and so forth. There are issues equally we see at the moment, issues over seabed mining, issues of the Law of the Sea, where countries aren’t working well together. Obviously, the conflict in Ukraine is another situation where rules-based systems, which this multilateral system developed at a very different time after the Second World War, when there was effectively only one superpower, has now developed into a rather difficult situation, because it’s a multipolar world where the agreement reached in the 1940s is no longer assumed by all parties to be mean the same thing.

Holly Sommers: We’re speaking, of course, of quite large systems, organizations, institutions here. But I just wanted to ask you what you think the role of ordinary scientists, researchers, academics, is in helping to build bridges to foster collaboration, and in a sense, contribute to and be a part of a Track Two diplomacy?

Peter Gluckman: They are the key people. I mean, science is driven by the efforts of literally millions of scientists around the world, social and natural scientists, they work within their local communities, they work within their societies, they work within their policy spaces. And not every scientist is a great communicator, but as long as they act in a trusted way, and within their own countries as effective science communicators, you see the bottom up movement, which is essential. I mean, we would not be making the progress, if we can call it progress, on climate change that we’re making now, had there not been community activism in many countries. So, I think scientists have played a major role there, but their first and foremost role is to be trusted conveyors of knowledge to their citizens, their society, and their policymakers. And I think that’s one of the things that the ISC is particularly conscious of, that, you know, science must continue to keep on looking at the responsibility of the scientists themselves, who are in a particularly privileged position at one level, and in a challenging position on another level. Science advisors have the most delicate role of all because formal science advisors have to have the trust of different constituencies, the trust of government, the trust of policymakers who are not elected officials, the trust of the science community, because all said and done, all they’re doing is a broker between the community of science and the community of policy and the trust of public. That’s a very hard position. We’ve talked about science diplomacy on this podcast, being a science advisor is a different skill, it is a diplomatic skill. It is maintaining relationships with these four constituencies and maintaining the trust of all those constituencies.

Holly Sommers: Peter, do you think that science diplomacy has traditionally been instrumentalized as a reaction to events, rather than as a prevention of them, and how do we ensure it’s preventative nature?

Peter Gluckman: Well, I think some of the successes have been preventative. The Antarctic Treaty, the ozone protocol, these are good examples that are prevention. I think the IPCC started with the science community demanding that the multilateral community take response. Now we’re in a very different world, a very interconnected world, a very fractured world, we’re beyond that period in the 90s where we were connected and not fractured. And we’re in a very tense period, probably for the next two decades, given what’s going on out there. But I think, in general, science can continue to be proactive. We’ve been talking about the large scale, much of what’s done is done on a much smaller scale. I mean, there are some huge issues. A classic example of difficulty would be the Amazon Basin, where we all understand the critical importance of the rainforest to global health. But we’ve not worked through within the domestic politics of Brazil, or other tropical countries, how they make decisions in the global interest. And those are the kinds of issues where science, beyond the technical sciences, political science, economics, social science has to be more into play. And again, that’s something where – by the fact that the ISC merged social and natural science into a single organization – allows for a different discourse. When you look at many of the issues in the world, food security, we have all the technology to make enough food to feed the population of the world, what we have are a set of incentives and issues that stop food being distributed adequately. So, we put a lot of money into the food science, do we put enough money into the food systems science, to actually stop the insecurity that there is around food? For example, most of our climate science was spent on the physical sides of climate science. How much money has been spent and invested to understand how do you change community understanding? How do you change policy understandings? How do you change the communication of risk? As I spoke about at COP26, these are the real issues of climate science. Now we know the world’s gonna boil, what we need to do is understand how we get the political and societal structures that stopped that happening.

The ISC was brought together by bringing the social science organizations and the natural science organizations together, with the recognition that the science community needed to find its global voice, and you can’t have a global voice for and of science unless you have people who want to listen to that voice.

After hearing about the importance of Track Two organizations such as the ISC, we now turn to talk more in depth about culture and heritage, knowledge systems and the role of women in the diplomatic sphere.

Our second guest today is Irina Bokova. Irina is a Bulgarian politician and a two term former Director-General of UNESCO. During her political and diplomatic career in Bulgaria, she served two terms as a member of the National parliament, as well as deputy minister and then minister of foreign affairs. She was also Bulgaria’s ambassador to France and Monaco, and Bulgaria’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO. Irina is an ISC Patron and co-Chair of the Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability.

Holly Sommers: Irina, you’ve had a career which has spanned parliament, civil society, foreign affairs, and a UN agency. Could you tell me about what you feel your personal common denominators are throughout these roles? What drew you to them?

Irina Bokova: Thank you for asking this question. I have been thinking myself a lot recently about what is happening nowadays in the world. What are the challenges? There is a huge change in the last, I would say 20-30 years particularly for me, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And on one side, we see that there are common challenges, there is science, technology, development, there is a huge improvement in human life, anywhere we can see. And at the same time, we see a fragmentation of the world, we see risks that are coming which we have not seen in the last decade, if not more than that. We are seeing conflict, we are seeing once again a lack of belief in science, information that is flowing, and for me what is very important is understanding each other, it’s diversity, it’s intercultural dialogue, it’s once again belief in our common destiny. And I believe, for me being a little bit in Bulgarian politics, then in the United Nations, being a diplomat first and foremost, because I am a diplomat, and I feel very strongly about diplomacy. I believe this approach of commonality of our common spaces, of our common challenges, and the need to find common solutions is what actually is driving me and driving me during my professional career.

Holly Sommers: As the former director general of UNESCO, and now also teaching a course on cultural diplomacy here in Paris, heritage and culture are evidently topics which are close to your heart. I wondered if you could explain to us the importance of these diplomatic streams such as cultural and scientific diplomacy, in addressing issues that perhaps the more formal diplomatic means sometimes fall short in confronting.

Irina Bokova: Indeed, the topics of protection of cultural heritage, of diversity, are very close to my heart, and we just celebrated, literally a few days ago, the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention on Cultural and Natural Heritage. And when we look back at the history of this convention, we can see that this is probably the most transformative, the most visionary idea of the last century, that something that belongs to another culture, to another religion, to another group, at a period in human history, can have an outstanding universal value, outstanding and universal. And that is why when a heritage somewhere in another part of the world is destroyed, we kind of all feel diminished. And if you look at the list of the World Heritage today, which has more than one thousand sites, it’s really an open book about diversity. Now, when we speak about, of course, the other side, the diplomacy, the fact that we include in this list of sites from all different cultures is a way of knowing about each other. It’s exchanging our knowledge. It’s getting closer to the values of the other and it’s an intercultural dialogue, and at the end of the day, when we speak about the shared heritage, it is also about bringing peace. It’s about more understanding. And at the end of the day, I think it’s recognizing that we are one common humanity.

Holly Sommers: And you’ve held many high level positions at both the national and the international level, and you’ve experienced how track two diplomacy operates in practice. I wondered if you could tell us a bit about how your political experience at the national level translated into the international sphere?

Irina Bokova: It’s a very interesting question, because I’m from this generation in Eastern Europe that had the historic, I would say chance, to be part of the reconciliation on the European continent. At the national level, I had also the very big privilege to be part of the first team of Bulgarian diplomats that started the negotiations for Bulgaria joining the European Union. And the motto of the European Union, united in diversity, has impacted me a lot during my work. And if you allow me on a personal level, my mother, who impacted me a lot also in my views, was a scientist, a radiologist, and she was passionate about knowledge. She was passionate about the way you make discoveries and the way knowledge can bring more wellbeing and more progress in a society. And, for me, having this approach of an openmindedness towards the world, and also coming from a country which is quite multicultural, being at the crossroads of different cultures with, I would say, a long history of layers of civilization there, impacted me a lot when I was working already as a diplomat in the United Nations and further on, of course, in UNESCO.

Holly Sommers: Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Whilst this is an ideal in practice, the reality is that, especially during times of conflict and crisis, this is not always feasible. And I wondered to what extent do you think that organized science and the scientific community is currently promoting Article 27 and can it do more?

Irina Bokova: I have always thought that the role and I would say the responsibility, also of scientists, is immense. Of course, they are very much focused on their own discoveries and their own work. But we know from history that scientists have taken bold positions and stands on critical junctures of recent human history. Let me just mention the Pugwash conference on science and world affairs that was created once again in the 50s in a very critical time. But let me just say that today, scientists should indeed be more vocal in my view, they should be more insistent, they should be giving a lot more ideas. And I believe that what gives me hope nowadays is that the International Science Council that was created just a few years ago by the merger of the two big scientific communities of the natural sciences, exact sciences and the social sciences now are promoting indeed this vision of science as giving the right solutions to the pressing needs of the world. I think it’s a process where we see a lot more science being part of the global conversation about the common knowledge that we want to establish. I just remember when we were working on the agenda 2015 and the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki Moon, established the Scientific Advisory Board with him that was guided and coordinated by UNESCO. It was a wonderful example of how science and the scientific community can really not only promote this Article 27 but giving and participating in a very direct manner in the finding of solutions of the pressing problems. And I hope it will be revived nowadays because the Secretary General, the current, Antonio Guterres, put in his report last year, Our Common Agenda, the idea once again, strongly emphasizing the role of science and the scientific community.

Holly Sommers: And just to go a little bit more broadly Irina, would you say that in certain regards, traditional diplomacy is failing somewhat? From unequal vaccine rollouts during COVID-19 to poor climate change progress and ongoing global conflict, it seems as though the answer could be yes.

Irina Bokova: Well, I will say with a lot of regret, that the answer is yes. I think classical traditional diplomacy indeed is failing because it could not grasp the profoundness of the challenges that we are confronting today, the unprecedented risks, be it with the COVID-19 or the vaccines, be it also with climate change. And I would say that the just recently concluded COP conference in Sharm el Sheikh is quite a disappointment. And I would say that already a lot of comments about whether this process is indeed credible, from the point of view of reaching the right examples. At the same time, that is why I think that we need a lot more science diplomacy, we need a lot more involvement of the broader scientific community. And when I say scientific community I mean all the sciences. I think it is very important here to mention that when we speak about science diplomacy and the contribution of science, we’re not speaking only about the natural sciences or the basic sciences or their contribution, which is critical, of course, but we’re speaking about all the sciences. We’re speaking about the social sciences, we’re speaking about the societal impact of what is happening in the world.

Holly Sommers: I just wanted to move now on to perhaps a more personal note, as the first woman and the first Eastern European to lead UNESCO, you’ve had an enormous impact on many women who are trying to, or have dreams of being in similar high level positions. When it comes to facing our inevitable global future crises, how can we ensure that women have central roles in discussion and decision-making, especially within the multilateral space?

Irina Bokova: This is another question that is not only close to my heart, but is a big concern for me, not only for me, but for many women leaders who have taken the high positions at the United Nations. I was looking just this morning at one of the photos of the COP27 conference in Egypt and once again, I could hardly see women’s faces there. And we know that climate impacts women much more than men in very many of the circumstances around the world. But women were not part of the debate and possibly of the decision-making. And this is really a very sad reality. I believe what is needed is to look at all the different aspects of our life today through the women’s lens, to put the optics there and to see what we can do in order on one side to solve these problems from women’s perspective, but on the other side that women be part also of the solution, be it in health, be it in overcoming the consequences of the pandemic. We know that unfortunately, now, because of these consequences, there is a big push back on many of the Sustainable Development Goals. And most prominently, I would say, on goal number five, on gender equality and women’s empowerment. And if we do not put a very strong emphasis there, I think we will miss an important opportunity to reach our goal of inclusiveness and equity in society. And I have always thought that we should not look at that as a zero sum game. Women gain and men lose. We really have to look at it as a win-win. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just women’s agenda, it’s a societal agenda. And there is plenty of evidence of how much we will all gain, all society will gain, families, communities, if women are there at the table, and also with the right lens. But like all women, we have to almost all the time overcome some doubts about whether we can make it. We have to work, I believe, more in order to prove that we can do it. And what is important, from my point of view, was also to support other women in such places where they can show that we women can do it. My ambition, and I achieved it in the organization, was to appoint women, competent women, women with experience, women with vision, women with knowledge, to important positions in the organization to create this critical mass of women there. I appointed, for the first time, an Assistant Director General for natural sciences. I appointed, for the first time, a woman director of the World Heritage Center. I appointed, for the first time, a woman head of our geological program, which is a very, I would say, man’s world there. And I think this is the way it should be for us to show that we can do the job as men can.

Holly Sommers: The preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO states that ‘since wars begin in the minds of men and women, it is in the minds of men and women that the defenses of peace must be constructed’. Scientists and research producing organizations are often deliberately targeted during times of crisis. And certainly the products of science and technology are critical to war and to peace. How can we ensure that science is central to constructing these defenses of peace?

Irina Bokova: The UNESCO constitution, indeed, is one of the most inspiring, I would say poetic, documents within the United Nations system. We of course know that much of the language there, the provisions were literally transposed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And many are saying that it’s too idealistic. But I think we need this type of ambition, we need this type of high values that we want to put. And this is where UNESCO’s constitution comes in, the main idea that we cannot build peace only through military, political means, but also through bringing, if you allow me to quote another paragraph from UNESCO’s constitution, through the intellectual solidarity, the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind. UNESCO is doing still a lot in this endeavor, and the fact that it had created the platforms for not just a scientific exchange, but I would say a more intercultural, with more intercountry exchange around issues of commonalities, I’m speaking about the biosphere reserve program, which today is one of the most important worldwide platforms of protected areas. And we know the importance of these protected areas for climate, for the protecting of biodiversity and some of the other solutions. And it has established, of course, the only research intergovernmental program, a hydrological program, about what is security. And this is also the way to build peace, of engaging governments jointly in creating common space to go beyond the national interest and to find the common interest of humanity. And I think this is very important to pursue further on if we want to bring peace to the world.

Holly Sommers: At the end of our conversation I asked both our guests to leave a parting comment about the future role of science in relation to the many crises and challenges we face today.

Peter Gluckman: I don’t want to claim a technocratic position for science, I think that is a dangerous statement to contend. Decisions will always be made on the basis of values first and foremost. Societies have values, political systems have values, what science can do is make sure that those who are in a position to make decisions, whether they’re communities and individuals citizens, or whether they’re policymakers and diplomats, understand what are the choices, what are the implications, because all these complex systems are interactions of feedback loops. And so science by not being too arrogant, and not demonstrating hubris, will be listened to far more than if we claim we have all the answers. And I think that is the lesson of the last 20 years, understanding that science inputs into systems that are largely values-determined, and on that basis we can be a lot more effective than claiming we know all the answers.

Irina Bokova: I think that science is the greatest collective effort today. What gives me hope is that there is already a better knowledge about the cross-sectoriality of what we need, that sciences could work together. Because we know from human history already that the importance of the societal impact of science is huge and it has occupied minds from Pythagoras, to the sages of China or India, or the Arab scholars. Now we’re better equipped to understand. And also because science, technology and innovation are recognized as one of the means of pursuing more equitable and sustainable development. What I would like to see more and what I think we are focusing on more and more is to look at the ethical side, to look at science, ethics and technology. I think this is one of the biggest challenges with the advancement of artificial intelligence, not to entrench some of the biases that exist there, but to look really, in a very equitable and democratic way, and to elaborate on and to put strong emphasis on science and ethics. Once again, it has been there, but we need really, to have a new look at these issues.

That brings us not only to the end of this episode, but to the end of our series. Thank you so much for listening to the Science in Times of Crisis podcast series from the International Science Council. We hope that sharing these conversations aids in understanding the broad impact that crises can have on organized science, science systems and individual scientists as well as the role that all of these can play in helping overcome crises.

 — The opinions, conclusions and recommendations in this podcast are those of the guests themselves and not necessarily those of the International Science Council —

Find out more about the ISC’s work on freedom and responsibility in science

Freedoms and Responsibilities in Science

The right to share in and to benefit from advances in science and technology is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as is the right to engage in scientific enquiry, to pursue and communicate knowledge, and to associate freely in such activities.

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