Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator

The second cohort aboard a cruise around Lac Léman


Alumni of the Geneva Science Diplomacy Week’s first two cohorts share their experiences with future applicants

A webinar dedicated to providing information and answering questions about the GESDA-led weeklong program in Geneva offered the views of several enthusiastic participants.

Since 2022, GESDA and its partners have provided an unparalleled immersion, learning and networking experience within Geneva’s multilateral ecosystem.

Geneva Science Diplomacy Week is a collaboration among key international agencies, diplomatic missions, academic institutions, global NGOs and technology leaders including CERN, Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva Science-Policy Interface, Geneva Graduate Institute, International Network for Governmental Science Advice, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich, University of Geneva, and UN Institute for Training and Research.

About 30 people join each year from different sectors of government, diplomacy, science and technology to learn and share experiences, becoming friends and collaborators in the process, said Brian Leung, a member of GESDA’s second cohort, who called the immersion program “a place for people who do want to be those boundary spanners, working at the interface of science and policy.”

Leung, a trained neuroscientist and immunologist who works as lead international specialist for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, served as moderator for the webinar. He kicked things off recounting his own impressions of his tight-knit group. “We have very similar networks and circles,” he said. “We met in Geneva. In terms of the friendships, they continue to this day. In terms of the experiences and what I learned, it’s really a hands-on interactive workshop and training.”

He brought to the program a background in health, but said he learned a lot about security policy including some “pretty amazing” lessons on neutral facilitation from a former president of Switzerland, Micheline Calmy-Rey, who is a GESDA Board member. Another one of the highlights, Leung recalled, was a session in which the entire cohort played the 2030 SDGs Game, a multi-player, in-person, card-based game that simulates taking the “real world” into 2030, the year when the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals – a global blueprint for peace and prosperity approved by the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly in 2015 – are supposed to be achieved. The game is all the more challenging since 85% of the SDGs are off-track due to the pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and wars in Europe and the Middle East.

“That was a really fun game where we all came together and play-pretended that we were a country negotiating for a better world for 2030,” said Leung. “In terms of gaining a better understanding of what the different types of science diplomacy deals are out there, it really did help out, understanding different nuanced thematics and topics.”

Inclusivity and networking

The immersion program offered Raphaela Kübler, then a science and technology program officer at the Embassy of Switzerland in South Africa, a chance “to see science diplomacy through its various aspects,” she recalled. Kübler, who now works for Swiss consultancy KEK-CDC, which provides expertise on international development, said the experience with the first cohort had the effect of “widening my horizon, working on a bilateral level.”

“It was a fantastic experience. For me, it was really an experience of understanding and practicing. Understanding the topics of science diplomacy, but also the practice of science diplomacy,” she said. “There’s always a piece where you actually can contribute, and there’s a ton – there’s actually so much more – where you can receive. And so, on the first aspect, I really received insights into the multi-layered thematics of science diplomacy on a multilateral level.”

On another level, she said, “to round it off, it was a network. It was really building a network of very different people but interested in the same topic. They’re so multifaceted that it generates very interesting discussions with its own dynamic, wherever they go. We do have a WhatsApp chat, and it’s very interesting how different people bring up topics. We discuss – and profit from – the thoughts and insights of fellows, and that continues to live on in its own way.”

Kyle Gustafson, a physicist who works as the science director for the U.S. Office of Naval Research Global in São Paulo, Brazil, described the immersive program he experienced as part of the second cohort as distinct from most other workshops or conferences he has attended. He was particularly impressed with the role-playing scenarios conducted at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, where scientists like himself pretended to be policymakers, and the policymakers pretended to be scientists discussing the regulation of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).

“That was an unforgettable moment, just being in Geneva, being in the center, after hearing these really interesting briefings from the experts there and then imagining that we were at a high stakes discussion over what does robot warfare mean?” he said.

“In neutral and multilateral, International Geneva, it’s an amazing place to be. And just the doors that GESDA was able to open for us, the incredible diplomats, incredible experience of the speakers we had, the small group intimacy of the cohort, was really special,” Gustafson added. “It creates relationships. It creates insights. And it makes some of those lessons stick with us a lot more. The cohort that GESDA put together was so diverse, every region of the world was represented.”

GESDA is “all about inclusion,” said Chukwuma Ephraim Okenwa, executive director of Nigeria’s Leadership Entrepreneurship and Advocacy Network. “To me GESDA means inclusion at the foundational level – getting Africa involved to really look at where science is taking our world and how it’s shaping the future,” he said. “And one of the things that inspired me and I was looking forward to were the pillars focusing on issues such as eco-regeneration and human augmentation. I really wanted to know what it is going to look like living in a world with augmented humans. And then when you look at the GESDA motto – use the future to build the present – I found that inspiring. And I thought, how can Africa align early enough on this project and begin to inspire young persons on how to begin to think beyond what might be the current limitations?”

Winnie Nakiyingi, a research and academic coordinator at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS, in Kigali, Rwanda, said the opportunity to network with diplomats and policymakers was the “biggest part” of the experience for an academic like herself. “I met a lot of people. I remember my first day in the session. I said, ‘I wish I could speak and think the way diplomats and policymakers think,’ because I come from an academic background,” she said.

“But right now, I am very proud of myself. I’m very proud of the fact that I can interact with people outside the academic umbrella,” said Nakiyingi, who is part of a research group that uses mathematics to prevent genocides before they happen. “So for me, GESDA is networking and that’s a very important aspect of my life. Given my background, I don’t come from a family that’s widely connected. GESDA gave me a big opportunity to meet people that I wouldn’t normally meet.”

‘Sometimes you’re the teacher, sometimes you’re the student’

Thato Morokong, assistant director for African multilateral cooperation at South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation, said she was nervous before joining the second cohort because she wasn’t sure what to expect and hoped for the familiarity of an academic experience. Then she got immersed in Geneva’s multilateral system.

“That, for me, was quite the game change in relation to this program. And over and above that, sometimes you’re the teacher, sometimes you’re the student, sometimes you have to be educated. Sometimes you feel like you have more expertise. It provided an opportunity to share some experiences, but also to learn from a multiplicity of dynamic, role players in the science diplomacy space,” said Morokong.

“It really provided an opportunity for me to also learn a lot in relation to the work that I do and learn some of the best practices that exist around the world,” she said. “I really recommend it for people that want to learn about science diplomacy, for scientists that want to learn how to work with policymakers, because, as mentioned, there was a former president also that actually presented to us, but also for people that would like to develop themselves as people that work in the interface of science and policy.”

Tamara Gómez Marín, chargé d’affaires and consul general for the Embassy of Costa Rica in Rome, Italy, said she was one of a few diplomats who participated in the first cohort, which made it interesting to be surrounded by a group of mostly scientists. “It was very enlightening and transformative for me,” she said. “But especially for me was this approach to the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar, and some experts that were participating, talking about neuro rights, quantum computing, things that I never thought about before and that were not only happening in the laboratories or discussions on a really technical level, but actually our countries are discussing about or should be discussing about these kind of subjects.”

Ismael Buchanan, a senior lecturer at the University of Rwanda who has been working as a postdoctoral research fellow on artificial intelligence in Washington, said his path toward the study of AI began with his experiences as a member of GESDA’s first cohort. “I got a chance to further my doctorate in Washington due to science diplomacy, which I learned from Geneva,” he said, adding that science diplomacy has become part of the University of Rwanda’s undergraduate political science program and Rwanda’s training program for diplomats. “I learned a lot from GESDA. You are doing a tremendous job.”

A potential applicant, Maureen Erinne- Kperogi, a political scientist and expert in international conflict management who is a technology fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, asked whether the selection committee weighs candidates for the immersion program based on their expertise in the main scientific areas laid out in the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar, or whether the candidates also might be chosen for their “well-rounded, holistic” approach to science and diplomacy?

Both backgrounds are valued, said Marga Gual Soler, a molecular and cell biologist who as head of science diplomacy capacity building for GESDA oversees the immersive week-long program in Geneva. “Having some participants that have deep expertise in the five scientific platforms of the Radar helps, because then it’s not only the speakers or the professors who bring all the knowledge, but there is a lot of expertise within the group which results in peer-learning” she said. “But then having transversal diplomatic and policy backgrounds on the other side, people that are generalists and understand the big picture is also important. So the composition of the group typically has 50% on science and academia and 50% on policy and diplomacy, with some participants coming from industry and civil society as well.

Geographically, GESDA also works to ensure that all five continents are represented, and designs the week-long program to feel like a cohort, not a general conference or large workshop. “Then there’s seniority level. It is an intergenerational program,” Gual Soler said. “You have a range from PhD students and postdocs all the way to ambassadors and senior executives. This creates an intergenerational dynamic that allows for not just the peer mentorship, but also the different levels of mentorship. It’s a transformative leadership experience and we are looking forward to welcoming the third cohort this June.” On the funding side, she said, GESDA offers full and partial scholarships, prioritized for Global South participants because typically they have less access to professional development funds.

The third edition of the Geneva Science Diplomacy Week will be held in Geneva from 10-14 June, 2024. Applications close March 4 and can be accessed on the Geneva Science Diplomacy Week 2024 Immersion Program site.