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New Cold War in science and tech feared

Leaders of a science diplomacy foundation say they are working to prevent a new Cold War from being fought over new uses for science and technology.

wiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis welcomes GESDA summit participants in a video message
wiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis welcomes GESDA summit participants in a video message (AN/J. Heilprin)

GENEVA (AN) — Leaders of a fledgling science diplomacy foundation say they are working to prevent a new Cold War from being fought between a few powerful nations or corporations seeking to hold a dangerous monopoly over new uses for science and technology.

Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis opened the inaugural summit of the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator Foundation, or GESDA, on Thursday with a video message stressing the need for greater collaboration between scientists and diplomats. The Swiss and Geneva governments created GESDA to serve as a think tank in Geneva's international community.

"Geopolitical considerations come into play around science and technology. There is a growing feeling that a new 'Cold War' is about to be fought over science and technology and the power they confer to the states who master them," he said. "We must, therefore, reflect on how we can adapt, evolve, and respond to the challenges and opportunities of our time. We need to build the global governance of the 21st century which can only succeed if it is far-sighted, evidence-based and equitable."

GESDA's Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said it was created to develop "an instrument of anticipation and action in the service of humanity in order to widen the circle of beneficiaries of advances in science and technology and on the other hand to strengthen Geneva as a preeminent hub for multilateralism.”

He has described the new foundation as a hedge against the rise of “neocolonialism” in science and technology by helping spread the benefits of new discoveries and advances equitably around the world.

The purpose of the three-day summit is to consider the results presented in GESDA's Science Breakthrough Radar, a compendium of 216 major science breakthroughs identified through the collaborative work of more than 500 leading experts in Swiss and global scientific communities.

Launched as a three-year pilot project in 2019, GESDA hopes to keep operating and expand over the next decade with renewed backing from the government and private sector. Cassis, as Switzerland's top diplomat, acknowledged the challenge GESDA faces as a global champion of so-called anticipatory science diplomacy.

"What we are trying to achieve with GESDA is new and hence, difficult. To link anticipation that looks far ahead with action that is immediate is a major challenge in itself," said Cassis, who as one of seven ministers that make up the Swiss Federal Council is in line to become president during 2022.

"And the method by which we are attempting to do it, is new and challenging for the participating scientists, diplomats, policymakers, citizens, representatives of the private sector and of philanthropy," he said. "But personally, I haven’t seen any better proposal yet on how to use science diplomacy to make governance of world affairs fit for the reality we are going to face."

Inevitably, the summit is colored by the COVID-19 pandemic — and the glaring inequalities between the rich nations that have access to vaccines and the poor countries that lack them.

One of U.S. President Joe Biden's top science advisers, Alondra Nelson, tackled the question of whether anticipation in science and diplomacy can help renew multilateralism.

“President Joe Biden has described our time as one of great perils and great promises,” said Nelson, deputy director for science and society for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

"For those of us in government, to truly be of service, we really have a responsibility to be forthright about both those realities at once," she said. "And to be honest both about the risks of innovation and partnership, but also bold in addressing them head-on. And I think that the Anticipator — anticipatory frame — is a fantastic possibility for working this through. Anticipation is filled, of course, with both enthusiasm and yet unease.”

'Inequitable worlds are very tense worlds'

Top officials from governments and international organizations said it will be crucial for nations to work together to solve global challenges like the pandemic, climate change, poverty and hunger.

Naledi Pandor, South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, said she tends "to encourage the use of international partnerships for much more adventurous blue skies relationships and exploration than perhaps the national institutions might be focused upon.”

Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said he wanted to explore a question: "Can we make the transition from where science enabled us to understand the challenge, to how diplomacy can accelerate that capacity to act, notwithstanding different interests and geopolitics? I think multilateralism is absolutely fundamental to that.”

International science and health experts say they support GESDA's mission. Peter Gluckman, president of the International Science Council, said the summit highlights the need "to make sure that all the sciences, in particular social scientists, are part of the discussion right from the start, rather than allowing the technological sciences to run ahead of the social considerations.”

The foundation also has allies from other major international organizations and academic institutions in Switzerland and worldwide. And as a self-described think tank and "do tank," GESDA and XPRIZE Foundation are working to create a joint competition on quantum technologies that could give rise to solutions to global challenges.

“We are very excited to partner with GESDA to create a hopeful future for everyone and incentivize the global crowd to solve global problems," said XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari, who also is part of a GESDA diplomacy forum. "Having a presence in Europe is fundamental for us to fulfill XPRIZE’s mission of inclusivity."

Since its founding in 1994, XPRIZE has launched more than US$350 million in incentive-based cash prizes for technological innovation. The first competition from the foundation headquartered in Southern California was the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight that helped to galvanize the commercial spaceflight industry.

Quantum computers, which can handle vast amounts of information in parallel due to their ability to allow subatomic particles to simultaneously exist in more than one state, are envisioned as a gateway to addressing problems that involve complex and large datasets and offering predictive machine learning-enabled solutions that can improve with time.

As a member of GESDA's board, Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the London-based Wellcome Trust charity, said the Swiss foundation is addressing the essential question of inequality made even more painfully evident by the pandemic.

Scientists developed coronavirus vaccines in record time but "did not think through the consequences of the problems that would come down the track in terms of inequality,” said Farrar. “If you do not put that in the context of society, if you do not put that in the context of politics — and you cannot avoid politics and diplomacy — then scientific advances will increasingly be available to a small elite in the world and not to everybody."

"And to me that is the greatest challenge of the 21st century: How do we avoid that degree of inequity in the world, whether we’re talking about climate inequity, whether we’re talking about inequity in terms of energy access, water access, access to science and technology?” he asked. “And if we are not careful, there will be a small group of countries or individuals in the world with access to the best science, and it will not be accessible to everyone else. ... And inequitable worlds are very tense worlds, and ultimately in history have mostly led to conflict.”