Harnessing science diplomacy in the fight against Covid-19: A South African perspective

International cooperation in science and innovation is vital if the Covid-19 pandemic is to be defeated. In recent weeks the South African Department of Science and Innovation (has engaged in a series of extensive dialogues with its international partners to explore and develop partnerships. On 4 April 2020, the Department hosted a conference call with close to 100 participants from the diplomatic community in Pretoria and international partner organisations to discuss cooperation.


The primary objective of this successful engagement was to bolster international networks and encourage the transnational sharing of information, crucial components of the scientific armoury in the fight against Covid-19. The discussion built on the participation of Dr Blade Nzimande, South Africa's Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, in a virtual ministerial meeting on cooperation and #OpenScience in the fight against Covid-19 held by UNESCO on 30 March 2020. South Africa is also actively contributing to the OECD analysis of the science policy response to Covid-19.


In his statement to the UNESCO conference, Minister Nzimande detailed the extensive contribution that the South African national system of innovation is making to the South African government's response to Covid-19. These efforts include data modelling and analysis, work on the development of diagnostic tools and drugs, and societal behavioural studies. Minister Nzimande also called for reinforced international scientific cooperation, emphasising the critical importance of African regional and continental partnerships.


Covid-19 knows no borders; neither should science. To deal successfully with the pandemic, it is imperative that the global scientific community collaborates. We need to share resources – experience, expertise, research infrastructure (including cyberinfrastructure) and data. We need to leverage national investments, pooling financial resources, investing in the capacities of developing countries, and aligning and optimising synergies between national research agendas. Perhaps most importantly, we need to reinforce global solidarity, strengthening the coordination and leadership efforts of the United Nations and regional bodies such as the African Union and Southern African Development Community.


If the desired impact is to be achieved, international cooperation in science and innovation should be underpinned by certain principles. The focus should be on the global good, not individual or institutional agendas, and we can see national and global priorities converge in the recognition that Covid-19 will be overcome only through a united response. With national capacities – including the efforts of scientists and experts – stretched beyond what is realistically possible, it is clear that international partnerships must go further than corporate social responsibility projects to add real value. Resources are limited, so any duplication of efforts would be scandalously wasteful.


Above all, the crisis requires urgent action, so there is no time for designing instruments of cooperation from scratch or delaying matters through excessively elaborate planning. We need to improve and build on existing programmes to ensure a rapid response.


Under the leadership of Minister Nzimande, the South African Department of Science and Innovation is committed to investing in such partnerships, embracing the holistic vision of open science proposed by UNESCO – i.e. scientific collaboration rooted in open access, open data and a science open to society. We deeply appreciate our collaborations with partners such as the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, the European Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership and the Regional Office for Africa of the International Science Council, with whom we are already implementing urgent response initiatives.


#ScienceDiplomacy has become a popular theme for academic discussion and analysis, with experts in both science policy and international affairs agreeing that science diplomacy plays a crucial role in addressing global challenges. Covid-19 is, of course, a defining global challenge.


The Royal Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science have identified three dimensions to science diplomacy, namely, "science in diplomacy" (science advice informing and support foreign policy objectives), "diplomacy for science" (facilitating international scientific cooperation and the development of international relations to support the scientific enterprise), and "science for diplomacy" (scientific cooperation improving international relations).


The dimensions of "science in diplomacy" and "diplomacy for science" are integral to the world's response to Covid-19.  "Science for diplomacy" is equally important, as solidarity across borders is needed now more than ever to build resilience in troubled times.


#StrongerTogether was the rallying cry for the nation to unite behind South Africa's 2019 Rugby World Cup triumph. It is also the message and invitation from the Department of Science Innovation to our partners across the globe.


Written by Daan Du Toit:  Deputy Director -General: International Cooperation and Resources, Department of Science and Innovation



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