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Scientific diaspora’s potential in collaborative enhancement of soft power


This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue of Revista Cultura.


Scientific diasporas remain largely untapped reservoirs of “soft power” projection, poorly understood and rarely deployed caches in the art of public diplomacy attraction and persuasion. This is possibly because state agencies involved in cultural diplomacy remain unaware or apprehensive about the role of cultural affinity in determining the civic allegiance of diaspora members as agents in the service of one state or the other. There is a long history of nations luring or stealing each other’s scientists and their innovations. That binary mentality of equaling one’s gain to one’s loss is transferred into lasting lamentations about “brain drain” instead of looking at the win-win net gains through transnational mobility and pulling together multi-national financial resources for research and innovation. Scholars and professionals who lead largely transnational lives tend to maximize collaborative use of resources and opportunities spurring the dissemination of expertise both ways to native and host countries. A different conceptual framework is needed to help us understand the potential positive role of scientific diasporas for both sending and receiving countries.

The concept of “soft power” provides that framework for understanding how scientific diasporas may be leveraged as vital human capital in grounding and enhancing strategic partnerships and the prestige of both sending and host nations. Harvard political scientist, Professor Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” some three decades ago to describe a wide array of tools used in foreign policy to entice and at times imperceptibly incentivize the articulation of other nations’ incentives, co-opting desired outcomes without the use of coercion. He differentiated the United States’ unrivalled economic and military “hard power” from the appeal of American values, democratic governance institutions and culture which he outlined as tools of “soft power” projection. He first outlined the “soft power” concept as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion,” something that “could be cultivated through relations with allies, economic assistance, and cultural exchanges.” The goal of statecraft, he seemed to argue was to nurture a “a more favorable public opinion and credibility abroad.”

While carrying a big stick matters and the militarily or economically dominant nations that possess “hard power” usually find themselves at the apex of “soft power” projection as well, they are not always able to translate that specter of coercion into desired cooperative outcomes. In practice, neither the occupation of territories by Soviet troops, nor the more recent exercises in mass media manipulation, or the “belt and road” economic diplomacy of China seem to have successfully translated hard power currency into instilling desired behavior based on trust or a positive, malleable public opinion in other nations. For all the talk about the lapse in US international leadership or the unraveling multipolarity on the international stage, the supposedly tattered American prestige has not yet sent scientists and skilled professionals spinning across the world. In any case, we are not seeing them clamoring to get to Moscow or Beijing as the new hubs of research and innovation. `While “hard power” endowed states are often at the apex of projecting “soft power” such influence is accessible to smaller nations who fund cooperative means of leveraging their limited soft power resources often achieving through asymmetric results in the projection of their long-term goals. Getting others to see and prioritize one’s interests as their own is in fact the art of wielding “shared values” and it is a readily available tool at the disposal of both large and small nations.

“Soft power”, the projection of a nation’s culture and values on the international stage has been studied in its correlation with that country’s influence in creating a space conductive to the achievement of its foreign policy goals. At its best, the positive projected image leads not just to increased cultural tourism but to foreign direct investment, foreign student enrolments and a prestige that enables high level diplomats to articulate that country’s perspective and interests within multilateral diplomatic engagements.

The “Soft Power 30” annual report developed by the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy builds on Professor Nye’s “soft power” concept and measures annually the global public diplomacy engagements and cultural relations projected by nations. This report compiles an extensive index of comparative measurements and ranks states on their performance. The report incorporates not just the actions of state sponsored agencies but the interventions of a variety of non-state agents with international impact in recalibrating a country’s prestige. The structured rankings account for the mix of soft-power resources that individual states have at their disposal and distinguishing objective factors from subjective ones out of their control. Accountable good governance and inclusive political values, digital exposure, international cultural dissemination, enterprise, foreign engagement and education are objective measurements. Factors such a cuisine, technological advancement, dissemination of products and the perceived friendliness of people are of a more subjective nature.

Cultural rankings and their correlations to the country’s international sway must consider that not every country conceives of its recipe for cultural diplomacy success in the same terms. Results based management applied to state sponsored institutions such as the British Council or the German Goethe-Institute, may quantify their impact through participation surveys, students or tourists attracted while a less centralized, privately self-sustained federative network such as the Alliance Française, may not need to report its impact in terms of achieved state-articulated foreign policy objectives. France has one of the longest traditions in using culture as a “soft power.” It is important to note that its success in establishing the Alliance Française as early as 1883 rests in rendering it into a financially self-sustained network of entities largely decoupled from the institutional or political interference of the French government.

Wielding “soft power” is at its best an art of synchronization developed through trust building exercises, a values-based community engendering process in which the agents of change are both government and private sector stakeholders. It is at its best a tango of following the lead and improvising on the tempo not simply a one directional propaganda march towards state driven goals. If it were simply a one-way march, it would hardly be perceived as anything less than propaganda, which often tends to legitimately backfire. Done right, it hopes to inculcate a cooperative environment within which partnership is perceived as mutually beneficial, accommodating the diverging perspectives of stakeholders involved.

Not all “soft power” mechanisms, institutions and projects are created to have the same scope and long-term impact. International exchange programs have the unique potential of cultivating relationships based on trust and mutual respect for the intellectual perspectives developed by participants, but it also stimulates inquisitive minds that help shape values and expectations. It is possibly because of this that cultural and academic exchange programs are notoriously difficult to implement in autocratic states, where a premium is placed on coercion and conformity not on inquisitive tendencies towards problem solving and innovation. One might argue that a branch of the diplomatic corps of a nation should conduct such programs as an extension of bilateral relations. There is a vulnerability with such an approach, one of perception, in which even scholarly research, may be seen as political in nature.

An anecdotal example is the rather futile, one-sided exercise of the United States in cajoling Russian cooperation in 2005 by endowing a US-Russia Foundation with some $320 million to promote such exchange programs. That foundation had largely collapsed in a few years and a lesson has yet to be drawn from that. Washington had given the Kremlin exactly what it seemed to ask, special treatment and control over exchange programs, state control partnerships instead of the supposedly agenda ridden handouts. Such state-to-state gestures will predictably be susceptible to political circumstances and expediency in either country. Private sector exercises, weather implemented through social entrepreneurs that seek self-sustainability or through apolitical non-governmental or research driven entities have a better chance at eschewing political pressure and surviving the pressures of fleeting administrations. They stand a better chance at building networks of trust centered on professional expertise and mutual respect.

While the concept may be relatively new, the practice of effectively mobilizing foreign educated diaspora elites is hardy a novelty. The past is prologue, and Romania should have a deep understanding of the influence played a century ago by its Francophone intellectual elites in swaying even its Germanophile royal household to side with an alliance that had neither immediate economic sway nor boots on the ground. The influence of a country’s intelligentsia however goes both ways and Romania’s diaspora elites had a major impact in building the prestige of the country, facilitating the formation of the current unitary state. Romania is nowadays a country with one of the most internationally mobile skilled labor force. Its state institutions should be interested in developing a strategy for engaging its scientific diasporas. It may well become its most rewarding return on investment.

In their research on “Soft power today: Measuring the effects” researchers at the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh highlighted the correlation between various forms of “soft power” investment and how these quantify into foreign direct investment. One of the strongest correlations built by the study was between political pluralism within the country, the environment of stability and inclusivity and how it fosters or limits foreign student enrolment and investments. The other correlation was that of good governance with its floury of measurements such as GDP impacting the attraction of foreign students. A country with poor infrastructure, unstable or unaccountable governance with difficult living conditions for foreign students, spotty internet connectivity or outdated academic centers, may not attract the same level of students, or foreign investment irrespective of the actual performance of a state-sponsored culture center. The international recognition of a country’s academic centers with regards not just to the worth of their diplomas but with regards to the research collaborations and prospects of transnational career opportunities is vital in creating a positive image projected abroad.

Not all countries have the resources to modernize their academic centers and attract investment but those who nurture that prestige stand to gain substantially. International students alone contributed an estimated $44 billion to the US economy in 2019 alone. The United States has for a long time been the top destination for international students attracting the best and brightest minds to premiere academic centers. Here, students and fellows may pursue research opportunities in a nonhierarchical environment that fosters open interactions between faculty and students and social environments of global reach with direct applicability for transnational careers.

The Institute of International Education with the financial support of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, recently released a report titled “Open Doors 2020,” providing key findings on the state of International Educational Exchange Programs in the United States and the reach of these programs abroad. While mobility restrictions imposed by the pandemic have led to a steep decline and deferment of enrolment, the situation is likely temporary. In the seven hundred colleges and universities surveyed by the study, there is a large difference in the total decline of student enrollment down by 16% versus a 43% drop in international students. Over a million foreign students continue to attend US academic institutions despite challenges related to the pandemic and increase in deferrals. The US has hosted over one million foreign students in each of the past five years and despite diplomatic tensions between the two countries for the 16th consecutive year Chinese students continue to grow to currently 372,000, followed by Indian and South Korean students. The number of American students studying abroad also increased despite the pandemic with more than half choosing European countries and only 12% choosing an Asian country.

Europe continues to attract international students while it also seeks to become a leading force in collaborative international research exchanges. In recent years, the European Commission has stepped in as a major academic grants provider through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions funding mechanism. It implemented the “Horizon 2020” financial exercise granting some 6.2 billion Euros. Flexing substantial financial muscle in building its networks of influence in the 2014-2020 financial exercise, it funded over 65,000 researchers, including 25,000 PhD candidates, out of which 31% were researchers attracted from outside Europe. Through its “Researchers in Motion” mechanism the pan-European initiative targets the shaping of a public academic presence on the international stage described as a “European Research Area” block, backed by national service centers in 42 European countries and in recent years attempted to reach out to European scientific diasporas in the United States. The upcoming multi-year financial exercise “Horizon Europe” promises to build on that success, and it is a venue for European academic centers, including those in Romania, to consolidate their research collaborations with American ones.

Each European Union member state has its own international image to nurture and some have more resources than others. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) founded in 1925 is of course as one of the largest state-funded yet self-governing such national organizations in the field of academic cooperation. While it does have offices abroad, including in the US, it uses its 522 million Euros budget to fund exclusively research conducted in Germany. Not all individual EU member states can allocate such generous endowments. Their best alternative is to pull resources through the European Commission mechanisms and foster researcher mobility joint coordination exercises with the scientific diasporas of other EU member states present in the United States. Medium size countries with limited resources stand to win the most out of a cooperative approach in instrumentalizing their scientific diasporas in “soft power” projection by incorporating former nationals or permanent residents leading transnational careers in their traditional concept of science diplomacy. Public diplomacy exercises would not just seek to showcase research or innovation initiatives conducted within the native country but also the contributions of its diaspora to the host nation.

Austria provides a model for such a well regimented effort in asserting the impact of its scientific diaspora in enhancing its own prestige. Their Office of Science and Technology (OSTA) functions under the egis of the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC mapping out and aiding both Fulbright and Marie Skłodowska-Curie scholarship recipients. The entity is supported by several Austrian Ministries who pull their funding jointly to support overlapping interests in engaging with their scientific diaspora. Through OSTA, they actively promote collaborations between leading professionals in Austria and those in the diaspora. They use this platform to enhance the impact and visibility of innovation communities committed to expanding transatlantic relations and investment. The pulled state and private funds are used in maintaining and expanding the Research and Innovation Network Austria (RINA), a platform which informs, assists and connects the country’s researchers and innovators in North America. This is an engagement that both enhances their nationals’ collaborations abroad and encourages the return of acquired expertise in research centers within Austria. The public-private sector partnership promotes the dissemination of career opportunities, mentoring connections and networking for scholars placed in various diaspora academic hubs.

A similarly state-sponsored platform is the Swedish Trans-Atlantic Researchers and Scholars (STARS) Network which explicitly promotes Sweden as a study destination, facilitating academic networking opportunities between 55 North American higher education institutions and 10 Swedish universities. Spain has implemented a similar approach for its scientific diaspora in the US, incorporating their ECUSA within a network of 18 such associations operating in various countries (RAICEX).

For some countries with financially self-sustaining diaspora organizations, the establishing of such platforms rests with the private sector. For example, the Greek scientific diaspora developed the “Hellenic Bioscientific Association of the USA” which fundraises within the diaspora to support mentoring programs, sponsor science teaching exchange programs and the participation of diaspora members in professional conferences and events. The US models of scientific diasporas’ mobilization are not the only models for pulling together collaborative resources. In Canada, the Immigrant & International Women in Sciences (IWS) Network is a grassroots nonprofit established two years ago to support a gender inclusive academic environment. It boasts a roster of over 500 members from various countries and scientific backgrounds. That approach however, while being attuned to the needs of a particular group of immigrants, does not offer the opportunity to promote the prestige of any sending country except that of the host nation.

The Immigration Research Forum, an entity established in Washington, DC has for the past two years worked towards mapping Romanian scientific diaspora networks, inviting leading diaspora scholars and professionals to attend annual conferences, and establishing interdisciplinary councils in various professional fields to enhance the public image, peer-support, mentorship on diaspora scholars and to create awareness about Romanian American contributions to American society. The IRF remains a self-sustained diaspora entity supported by the donations of Romanian American members. While it enjoys the encouragement of the Romanian embassy, it has yet to identify any sustained interest or expressed support from any Romanian ministry or Romanian universities or private sector research focused entities interested in establishing working relations with the country’s scientific diaspora.

It would be important for Romania to articulate a coherent policy with regards to a structured engagement with its scientific diaspora, not merely in the envisioned return of scholars. Public-private partnerships that structure channels for the dissemination of diaspora expertise stand the best chance in ultimately developing research and innovation hubs within Romania. Such deliverables could in the long run enhance the reputation of the country as a worthy destination for international students and scholars alike.

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