Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator

Presidential adviser. Founder and CEO. National science and technology adviser. Career diplomat. Computer systems engineer. Analytical chemist. Senior science officer. Corporate vice president. Head of innovation. Head of international programs. Aporetic futurist.

These are among the wide-ranging professional experiences that 30 participants brought to the launch of Geneva Science Diplomacy Week 2024 on Monday. Participants also reflected a broad geographical diversity from 25 nations: Argentina, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, Uganda, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Zambia.

The day began inside the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) Museum, where GESDA’s Head of Science Diplomacy Capacity Building Marga Gual Soler described how science diplomacy has dramatically evolved just since 2010. That was the year the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science published New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy, a framework for science diplomacy with three pillars: science in diplomacy, diplomacy for science, and science for diplomacy.

“There was a space, a little pathway, where we could carve out more room for scientists,” she said of the concept which has spread rapidly through the international scientific and diplomatic communities and taken on added meaning with GESDA’s anticipatory approach. “Since that time that path has become a highway where you have more and more scientists joining in.”

Today, science diplomacy must also balance three key factors: the unprecedented pace of scientific and technological progress; the urgency with which global challenges must be addressed; and the complexity of global geopolitics and global societies.

That has led to a new GESDA-defined anticipatory science diplomacy. It combines three factors: 1) anticipation of the societal, economic and geopolitical impacts of emerging and future technologies before they are ready for deployment; 2) honest brokering of a collective debate over the potential benefits and opportunities, along with the scientific risks and concerns, to come up with a full range of options for making the best possible use of something for all of humanity; and 3) global action, rather than unilateral national approaches, to solve humanity’s challenges and prepare future governance frameworks.

All photos by Michael Chiribau, UNITAR Division for Multilateral Diplomacy 

The quest for diverse narratives

All of the week’s session topics are derived from the 2023 GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar®, a collective impact exercise that provides “an infusion of future-minded thinking” to help navigate the 21st century acceleration in science and technology advances, she noted.

The immersion program, which runs through Friday, draws on and enriches Geneva’s multilateral ecosystem, which has embodied the spirit of science and diplomacy since the formation of the Red Cross movement more than 160 years ago. Hosted by GESDA and its 17 partners from Geneva, Swiss and global institutions, the enthusiastic cohort wasted no time starting to learn, network and ask tough questions.

Participants asked how hundreds of scientists are able to reach consensus or to measure their impacts during their involvement in the preparation each year of the Radar’s comprehensive global overview of anticipated trends and breakthrough predictions.

“It’s written for policymakers but we want it to be used by as many people as possible,” said Sophie Gilbert, GESDA’s Program Lead Science Anticipator, who oversees the preparation of the annual report with Martin Müller, GESDA’s Executive Director Science Anticipator. “As we develop the Radar, we want to engage around the world with as many different leading scientists and researchers as possible. We don’t want just one person, one narrative dominating throughout the Radar.”

Science breakthroughs are discoveries that transform the knowledge frontier and can have a major impact on science, technology and society, Gilbert said, while anticipation potential describes the capacity for consequential action over the next 25 years. Anticipation potential has three dimensions: uncertainty, transformative effect and scope for multilateral action.

The Geneva Science-Policy Interface briefed participants on the process of multilateral diplomacy – from agenda sharing, defining issues and negotiations to agreement, national implementation and reviews – and how international organizations collaborate to have impact in the scientific and diplomatic worlds.

Its workshop on finding strategies to generate useful policy knowledge helped participants understand their role as ‘boundary-spanners’ between the scientific and diplomatic worlds and how multilateralism has contended with environmental crises, the pandemic, technology disruptions, disinformation and polarization.

All photos by Michael Chiribau, UNITAR Division for Multilateral Diplomacy 

New ideas and roadmaps

After a UN guided tour of the Palais des Nations led by UNITAR, some of the participants were left wondering at the complexity of how the world body’s 193 member nations manage to reach agreement on pressing issues. In some ways, the UN’s daily proceedings seemed more civil and well-organized than some national parliaments. On the other hand, the civility appeared to break down most notably at lunchtime when some witnessed what they described as a free-for-all atmosphere of “salad bar politics” with no outside moderation.

The day ended with a tour of the ICRC Museum and opening ceremony and reception with GESDA Board Director Enrico Letta, the President of the Jacques Delors Institute and former Prime Minister of Italy. Letta described GESDA’s efforts to advance a global training framework for preparing leaders to address the challenges of a world accelerated by science and technology.

“The Geneva Science Diplomacy Week brings academic, diplomacy, impact and citizens together,” Gual Soler said before handing the microphone to three members of the new cohort to explain their motivations for joining the program – and their experiences from the first day. “It is based on experiential learning. We don’t do traditional lectures. It’s all about role playing, shifting perspectives, putting people into the shoes of the other person to understand their reasons, their mindsets, everything that we’ve discussed.”

Eduardo Schenberg, a Brazilian neuroscientist and psychopharmacologist who contributed to the GESDA 2023 Science Breakthrough Radar® on the future of psychedelic medicine, described the excitement and inspiration he felt to be part of the immersion program. The first day was already “bringing new ideas and showing me a new map that I didn’t know about science diplomacy” that could help him chart his career and future approaches to the therapeutic aspects of drugs, he said, including those that are regulated by the Brazilian government and come from plants used for religious purposes and traditional rituals based on the knowledge of Indigenous peoples.

Fun Man Fung, an analytical chemist and researcher at the National University of Singapore, valued the group’s ability to speak openly and ask questions about how people from different backgrounds can collaborate. “This is the real science diplomacy – when people meet, look into each other’s eyes, and feel trust and exchange without any filter or influence from what’s happening outside the world,” he said. “Very insightful. I’m thankful for this opportunity.”

Emmanuelle Tuerlings, a technical officer at the World Health Organization, said she was interested in learning more about how to incorporate diverse perspectives on scientific anticipation and foresight into research on emerging technologies, including how to prioritize and support advances in life sciences and the duality that life sciences bring. “That means dual use research. The aim there is to raise awareness about this, but also, of course, to provide support to member states and key stakeholders about this issue,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to be here.”


Story by John Heilprin