We Need Science Diplomacy!

by Larry Susskind
June 2017

Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind

Larry Susskind

My colleague, Professor Paul Berkman, has launched a Science Diplomacy Center at Tufts University. This is a campus-wide initiative coordinated through the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  I look forward to working with him. We are going to offer a two day workshop this August for PHD students in Boston area universities interested in learning more about ways of ensuring that their dissertation findings are presented in a compelling way to policy-makers. To do this, we will try to equip them (including natural and social scientists) to function as “science diplomats.”  There has been lots written about the need to enhance the “policy literacy”of technical specialists; we are not talking about that.  That is mostly focused on the clarity and understandability of technical communication.  Rather, science diplomats jump into the PROCESS of managing change, particularly when common resources are involved (i.e. oceans, the atmosphere, the Arctic, Antarctic, outer space, ocean floor, great rivers, and more), especially those that cross as well as extend beyond the boundaries of nations. This involves taking action with an eye toward balance and inclusion. Being helpful requires taking account of the interests of all, not just voicing an (informed) opinion.

The science diplomacy process hinges on (1) the acquisition and presentation of evidence regarding the way socio-ecological systems have changed, are changing and might change in the future; (2) attention to the records of government agreements and commitments (i.e. constitutions, laws, treaties, regulations, contracts, etc.) that spell out the rights and responsibilities of citizens, corporations, non-governmental actors, state and multi-state agencies; (3) the voices of stakeholders, both those who are already organized and those who are not; and (4) negotiation, or problem-solving, aimed at reconciling the conflicting interests (of stakeholders and governments). From my standpoint, such negotiations need to be facilitated or mediated by professional process managers.   The output of these negotiations can be used or ignored by those with decision-making responsibilities. 

What do potential science diplomats neeed to know to be effective? With regard to evidence, they need to know how to model complex systems and explain the dynamics of socio-ecological systems. When they present forecasts, they need to know how to acknowledge uncertainty and explain the sensitivity of their historical explanations and prospective forecasts to non-objective assumptions scientists are obliged to make (e.g., what time frame or geographic area to use for purposes of forecasting). Finally, they need to know how to gather, sort and “clean” many kinds of data gathered in the field and turn these data into evidence for decision making.  With regard to government records, they need to know how to read and interpret official agreements and operating rules. This is not so straightforward as many people imagine.  There are often multiple agreements, at different scales, that all apply in the same situation. And, often, (as Justice Holmes once said) general principles don’t decide concrete cases. Interpreting which rights and responsibilities apply requires learned interpretation. With regard to interaction with stakeholders, science diplomats must learn how to engage in stakeholder assessment (i.e. figuring out which groups have a legitimate claim to be involved in particular decisions and who can speak for them). They also need to know how to present the views of hard-to-represent stakeholders (like future generations!). Helping stakeholders clarify their interests, especially when they are part of fractious groups, is difficult, but it is the science diplomats job to do so.

Science diplomats need to be “at the table” when negotiations begin.  We know that this is too often not the case.  Typically, each “side” comes with evidence prepared by “its” scientific advisors. At that point, the battle of the print-out begins. We are not talking about this kind of advocacy science.  Rather, we believe that science diplomacy requires the involvement of interdisciplinary teams of scientists as process advisors – at the table.  Most scientists have never received ANY instruction about how to function in this context.  We need to enrich the repertorie of individual science diplomats so they can help to craft case-appropriate ways of participating in the process of guiding change. 

Many scientists have no interest in serving as science diplomats.  That’s fine.  There is plenty of work for them as disciplinary specialists. But, we need a growing cadre of scientists who want to engage in the interdisciplinary process of science diplomacy. This becomes increasingly urgent, as decisions made now are foreclosing our ability to protect, preserve or renew the sustainability of our world on a planetary scale. We are mindful of the horrors of “world wars” and the acceleration of human population growth from one billion people at the start of the industrial revolution toward eight billion by end of this decade.    

Science diplomats can convene dialogues among allies and adversaries alike, pointing out common interests, and reminding everyone that we are a globally-interconnected civilization facing the fundamental challenge of balancing national interests and common interests for the benefit of everyone on Earth.


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planningin 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School-- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.


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