Science Meets Policy and Diplomacy in Mexico - Reflections on the 1st Mexican Congress on Science-Informed Policy

Posted on Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Author: Paul Dufour

Paul Dufour

Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor, ISSP
Principal,Paulicy works

The Backdrop

Some years ago (25 to be more precise), with a government Chief Scientist, I had the privilege of  being invited to participate in a unique meeting in Acapulco of science and technology advisory bodies to heads of government in the Americas organized by the Consejo Consultivo de Ciencias (CCC). It was the second gathering of the group first initiated in Ixtapa in November 1991 where the objective was to have S&T perspectives and advice better integrated with foreign affairs and engage globally oriented scientists to provide a unique source of advice to heads of government on integration of science related public policy issues.



The 1991 conference was inspired in part by William Golden who had, with the assistance of the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government and the then US Science Advisor, Allan Bromley,  launched the initial meetings of G-7  country science ministers (including the then Soviet  Union). The Ixtapa and Acapulco meetings brought together participants from the Americas and the Caribbean  and concluded with a number of recommendations, one of which suggested: it is advisable to increase occasions for the exchange of experiences and approaches regarding the organizations, operational modalities, and issues addressed by advisory bodies in the Americas, with the purpose of strengthening bodies and encouraging their establishment.  

1992 was also propitious in a number of  related areas, not least the signing of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In May of that year, following negotiations on global change research, the Montevideo Declaration had been signed by 12 nations creating the IAI. The Institute seeks to achieve the best possible international coordination of scientific and economic research on the extent, causes, and consequences of global change in the Americas, with the objective of significantly expanding the frontiers of knowledge and serving as an effective interface between science and the policy process.

Also in 1992, with the impending North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the US, Mexico and Canada had explored the potential for greater North American collaboration and bilateral relations across a number of sectors, including higher education where the North American relationship needed more impetus. A statement of the Conference on North American Higher Education Cooperation had been issued to stimulate enhanced trilateral cooperation.

Fast Forward

So in October 2017, in Mexico City 25 years later, a special congress picked up many of these themes  of collaboration and connections organized with the CCC along with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A new NAFTA arrangement was being negotiated; the IAI was celebrating its quarter of a century; the OAS was gearing up for its fifth meeting of Ministers and High Authorities in S&T in Medellin, Colombia; Canada was assuming the G7 Summit  mantle and  Argentina  was about to take over the G20 Summit process. And climate change was still very much on the agenda, with large-scale natural disasters having affected both Mexico and the region directly.

The Mexican Congress reminded many of the need for collaboration and the importance of  the diplomacy of knowledge. The speakers brought differing perspectives on good practice in these areas. Mexico’s science advisory capacity was highlighted with its pluralistic ecosystem including CCC, Conacyt, FCCyT and the AMC.The Office of Science, Technology and Innovation of the Presidency established in 2013 was represented with these several bodies taking charge of emerging approaches in support of science and innovation as well as improving the science culture. The US brought forward some key reflections on its own rich history of advocacy and knowledge advisory structures through the AAAS, NAS, State Department  and regional experiments via California’s Council on S&T. The 45 year old AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows program was one of the key public policy instruments highlighted now being adopted in California and Canada.  At the international level, UNESCO flagged its extensive science and technology network  and activities across the region as well as globally, and the IAI explained its growing activities on global change research now supported by 19 countries. And a Canadian context reflecting on the ‘sunnier” days for science under a new Liberal Administration was underscored.

A keynote address by 1995 Nobel Laureate Mario Molina brought home the need to invest in fundamental science while also flagging the issues surrounding social responsibility for more  effective science advice.  The first day concluded with an MOU signing between AAAS and the CCC to enhance collaboration in a number of areas including science advice and diplomacy.

As the AAAS CEO Rush Holt reminded about the complex nature of policy, evidence and facts:  “What we need are two things: a place at the policymaking table for the scientific perspective, and, secondly, we need an understanding by the advisers and those who receive the advice that science cannot hope or expect to provide the fixed, immutable truth that is clearly applicable in a particular policy or regulation. “Science can inform policy and regulation. It cannot dictate policy and regulation.”

The second day focused on diplomacy and its interface with the scientific enterprise held at one of the world’s largest and oldest universities, UNAM.  With an auditorium packed with students and faculty, cases were presented on how Mexico and the US have played a key role in the statecraft of science, including efforts in astronomy and biodiversity.  Science diplomacy now has its own field of study as we learned from a scholar and practitioner at Tufts University and the AAAS’ Science and Diplomacy office has been instrumental in promoting the intersection of science and global affairs--now offering material  through online courses.  Climate diplomacy was also the subject of several talks surrounding some lessons from the IPCC process. The day concluded with an international  negotiations simulation  (the Mercury Game) designed to teach students about the role of science in international affairs. Over 70 students from UNAM took part and presented the results of these debates with passion and clarity.

The Follow-Up

Some would argue that not much has changed regarding the ecosystem for science and innovation in the Americas since 1992---they would be wrong.  A great deal of capacity for science advice and the integration of science into foreign relations has taken place and continues to evolve.  The debates of course are shaped heavily by geography, history and culture. The spread of knowledge (including indigenous knowledge) through new regional,cooperative trading and economic fora has engendered the need to re-think how foreign policy, trade relations, international arrangements  and development assistance is produced. And we now face a post-truth world.

Science is at the heart of this constantly emerging system. The more countries in the region enhance their ‘intermestic’ connections,  including their education systems, the more societies and economies will grow. Indeed, as the 1991 Ixtapa meeting noted, policies for developing national science and technology resources (with strong linkages to the global arena) to address a range of local, national, and international goals are essential. But sound leadership and effective commitment ultimately matter.

The 1st Mexican Congress on Science-Informed Policy was a large step in this direction-- and its intergenerational recognition of the urgency to address sound evidence, knowledge and advice with social responsibility as a guidepost was a key message.  This is a global challenge for us all.

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