"The corals of Aqaba and the Red Sea, where science and diplomacy come together"

Bern, 19.03.2019 - Berne, 19.03.2019 - Speech by Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis at the international conference on the theme of dialogue between science and diplomacy - Check against delivery

Members of Parliament,
President Vetterli,
Representatives of academia, scientists and researchers,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for being here today. I realise that some of you are probably wondering why a landlocked country should be interested in corals in the Gulf of Aqaba. In Bern the closest thing we have to such an idyllic setting is Marzili down by the River Aare. I suspect some of you may even believe you have spotted corals down there on a hot summer's night. Marzili is also a place where people are able to discuss politics in a relaxed atmosphere. A quick dip in the cool water can calm down any discussions that risk overheating...

1. The corals of Aqaba
But I digress. Let’s get back to the corals! It was the corals that came knocking at my door. Or rather, it was the EPFL in Lausanne that brought this excellent scientific project to my attention. The corals in the Gulf of Aqaba have demonstrated a unique ability to resist rising water temperatures caused by climate change. The EPFL project aims to investigate this unique phenomenon – one that could prove crucial in preserving marine ecosystems. To do this, it will create a fund which will enable it to draw on the expertise of the scientific community in the region, with projects selected on criteria of scientific excellence.

Some technical aspects of the project have yet to be finalised, but things have got off to a promising start. Martin Vetterli and his team – recognised experts in educating future generations of engineers – will ensure that it continues to fruition.

But despite these unique characteristics that deserve to be investigated, we must not forget that coral reefs – whether in the Gulf of Aqaba or elsewhere (in the Red Sea) – are not immune to human factors, such as pollution and overfishing. Protecting these coral reefs is not only crucial for the ecosystem, but also for scientific research and for the region’s economy.

I have seen the underwater photos of the Gulf and the sheer natural beauty is truly astounding. But what would happen if it were to lose some of that beauty? What would the economic repercussions be for the region?

The photo exhibition on display here today is – I believe – a stark visual reminder of what we might one day come to lose if we are not careful. I would therefore like to express my sincere thanks to the photographer, Claudia Schildknecht, for this stunning visual documentary.
2. Politics, science and diplomacy
Ladies and gentlemen,

The scientific aspects of the project will be dealt with later, and more competently, by the next speakers – EPFL president Martin Vetterli and Professor Anders Meiborn – and members of the region’s scientific community.

But the aim of this meeting is also to bring together players from the fields of politics, diplomacy and science.

As a medical doctor I was trained in scientific methods in order to practise evidence-based medicine. I’m convinced that the same approach should be used by policymakers: we should aim for evidence-based politics, as far possible. This is particularly important in our era of digital propaganda and fake news. Every day, I try to encourage this sound approach within my Department. Critical thinking and innovation should be part of our DNA.

Injecting more science into politics to achieve more evidence-based politics is one thing. But trying to inject more politics into science is quite another. Have no fear! I’m not seeking to curb the freedom of scientific research through political interference. The question is how to deal with innovations that are shaping the future and changing the world. What kind of use should we make of these new technologies? How should they be regulated?

While researchers address international challenges together by working across borders, regulation still tends to be very much a national matter. And this is unlikely to change in the near future. Of course we are all familiar with the multilateral system of the United Nations - the world assembly of governments - and of the IPU - the world assembly of parliaments. This year we are even celebrating the centenary of the League of Nations: la Société des Nations was born in Geneva in 1919. But the challenges I was speaking about need a stronger dialogue between science and politics.

3. Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator
This is why the Swiss government recently decided to create a new organisation called the ‘Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator’. This foundation aims to provide substantial support to anticipating the societal impact of scientific breakthroughs. It is based in Geneva at the heart of world diplomacy, and is strongly supported by the Canton and State of Geneva, as well as by the United Nations. The foundation will facilitate cooperation between science and multilateral diplomacy, enabling current challenges to be met and future challenges to be identified. The project fits perfectly with the desire to boost interaction between two separate worlds.

4. Science diplomacy
We owe this growing interaction not only to scientific work, but also to diplomatic efforts, for which my department, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is responsible. I for one am convinced of the project's success and subscribe to the motto of 'who dares wins'.

But let me summarise the concepts: I spoke earlier about more science in politics (evidence based politics) and more politics in science, especially through international diplomacy (science diplomacy).

But let me conclude with some considerations about “science diplomacy”. The concept of science diplomacy – also known as scientific diplomacy or “science through diplomacy” – entered into the diplomatic vocabulary about ten years ago, but the international community has yet to assimilate it fully.

Science diplomacy is the use of scientific collaboration among nations to address common problems and to build constructive international partnerships.

The CERN project is a good example of this: the world's largest laboratory for particle physics was born from the ashes of the Second World War. CERN was and still is an incomparable laboratory for peace, bringing together scientists from around the world, regardless of whether tensions or war might exist between their nations.

Here in the room today we have a former director-general of CERN, Professor Herwig Schopper, who is also the father of SESAME, the CERN of the Middle East. Welcome to Bern Professor. You can personally testify that science diplomacy works!
Science diplomacy is increasingly seen as a key component of foreign policies; it is also an opportunity for Switzerland to fine-tune its positioning by formally establishing its strategic objectives and means of action, leading to collective security and prosperity.

5. The corals of Aqaba for Science Diplomacy
Ladies and Gentlemen

I harbour the same expectation with your project on the corals of Aqaba. Science as a bridge, science as an opportunity for dialogue between all parties involved, and hence science as a diplomatic instrument in confidence building.

The role of science is to provide the best evidence possible, in order for society to make the right choices. And this, in spite of fake news and manipulation. The leader of the American Revolution and second U.S. president (1797-1801) John Adams (1735-1826) said, "Facts are stubborn things".

Switzerland has excellent universities, we are a rather small country with great scientific potential. Swiss diplomacy is keen to support your innovative ideas.

Let’s move ahead with Science Diplomacy!
Thank you.

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