Speech - More science in diplomacy, more diplomacy in science

Lugano, 07.05.2021 - Speech by Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis on the occasion of the 25th Dies academicus of the Università della Svizzera italiana in Lugano. The speech was given in Italian. Check against delivery.

State Councillor Manuele Bertoli
Mayors and municipal representatives
President of the USI Council, Monica Duca Widmer
Rector Boas Erez
Members of the academic staff
Dear students

Congratulations
My warmest congratulations to the USI on  this 25th anniversary. Despite it being your birthday, it is you who are handing out the presents – the new Faculty of Biomedical Sciences, the new East Campus, and the House of Sustainability. I am honoured to be here to pay tribute to your quarter-century milestone, which you have reached with verve and largesse.

As I was preparing for this very special Dies academicus, I was taken back to my time in International Geneva. The year was 1996, and I had just received my masters in public health from the director general of the WHO, Dr Hiroshi Nakajima. I remember the powerful emotions of that day, which must be how the young doctors who choose the USI and Ticino for their studies also feel. It makes me proud that the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland has become such a crucial part of our country's scientific community, thanks to a network of institutions spreading from Mendrisio to Airolo.

It was that masters in public health that enabled me to combine my passion for medicine with my interest in helping society. Of course I had no idea at the time, but I was in fact taking a first step towards the position I have the honour to hold today. So what better occasion than today, here in Lugano, to leave the nostalgia for youth behind and talk about what I would like to see in our future.

Science through diplomacy, diplomacy through science
The scientific method of practising evidence-based medicine has been imprinted on me since university, and I remain convinced of the fact that this should also be the main approach when it comes to politics. By that, I mean evidence-based policy. A scientific approach is key to countering the noise generated by mainstream populism, which feeds on fake news and the oversimplifications of online propaganda. It is also the only defence we have against global threats like the one we are going through right now – the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ladies and gentlemen

I firmly believe that politics needs more science. But science also needs more politics: to make sure that scientific and technological discoveries serve humanity, not the other way round.

In other words, we need more science through diplomacy, and diplomacy through science. The concept of science diplomacy has been gaining ground in the last 10 years and has helped to modernise international diplomacy, bringing it up to speed with the scientific and social challenges of this century. That is why I decided to make science diplomacy a cornerstone of Swiss diplomacy for the 2020–23 legislative period.

Switzerland has an excellent academic network. And a diplomatic network that is equally strong. So why not combine these two worlds strategically? Why not focus more on the universal language of science to help bring together countries whose only form of dialogue is through the barrel of a gun?

That is why I would like to take you on a journey of discovery today, with three stop-offs to help us explore the stories behind science diplomacy.

From the Gulf of Aqaba to Lugano
Our starting point is the Red Sea and a Swiss vessel called Fleur de Passion. The crew set sail a few days ago in order to study the underwater marine paradise of the Gulf of Aqaba. The area straddles four different states with very different histories and cultures: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. And it is there that a small yet far-reaching miracle is taking place, discovered by the EPFL. For reasons as yet unknown, the colourful coral reefs of the Gulf of Aqaba continue to thrive and shine. The corals there exhibit a resistance to rising sea temperatures, which have proven deadly for almost all other coral reefs and many other organisms. In fact, the Aqaba corals may be the last in the world. The goal of the Swiss expedition therefore is to look for scientific evidence that will help preserve the marine ecosystem. Their mission is not just of global importance; it also has concrete implications for the bordering countries and their economies. Thanks to this scientific expedition, Switzerland is in a position to establish links in the tense and fragmented political context of the Middle East. The science-based dialogue has a positive impact on the states involved and their policies.

Our next stop is a little closer to home, on the shores of Lake Geneva. In 2019, the Federal Council together with the Canton and City of Geneva set up the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA). The notion of 'anticipation' in the foundation's name is key: what is the potential impact of the discoveries being made in the lab today in 5, 10 or 25 years' time? And how can we prevent misuse? From advanced artificial intelligence to the quantum revolution, eco-regeneration to human augmentation, or robot warriors to self-driving vehicles – the potential is enormous; so too the risks. GESDA makes worlds that speak different languages communicate with each other: the scientific community with governments, tech giants with international organisations. The idea is for the global community to frame these powerful new instruments in line with international legal norms early enough so as to be able to anticipate how these tools may impact people in future. This is a new type of multilateral engagement, and a new face that we want to put on Swiss diplomacy.

Our final stop brings us back here to Lugano, within the walls of the USI. These are the stars of the Middle East Mediterranean (MEM) Summer Summit. In some Middle East countries, young people represent more than half of the population. It is their ideas – beyond political, religious and ethnic divisions – that can change the future of this rich and turbulent region. A region that is also strategically important for Switzerland. The MEM is a concrete example of how universities can become vectors of diplomacy.

A fruitful exchange
Dear students and researchers

The concept of science diplomacy may be new, but its substance is not. Almost 70 years ago in the aftermath of the Second World War, one of the most ambitious projects of the 20th century was signed. It was 1954, and the project marked the beginning of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). During the Cold War, CERN was the only meeting point for countries whose only common ground was mutual distrust. CERN is indeed an example that can inspire us all.

And that is how I want to see our future. Science and diplomacy working hand-in-hand in the interests of humanity, in the interests of every human being. Science gives us method, data, information, knowledge. Politics should turn that knowledge into wisdom, which is perhaps the most difficult step. And in a democracy, falls ultimately on the people. It requires goodwill, courage and responsibility.

Like any other country, Switzerland has its weaknesses and its strengths. One strength we offer the world is reliability, credibility and the ability to create dialogue between different worlds. For centuries, Switzerland has practised the art of coexistence necessary for people with different languages, cultures and religions to live side by side; nowadays, it also does so successfully beyond its national borders. We build bridges, including diplomatic ones. We provide good offices to those who cannot or will not talk to one another. We promote peace and open up International Geneva to the whole world. We try to turn information into wisdom.

Switzerland is well placed to be a key actor in science diplomacy. We need people that make good diplomats, but we also need people from important and upcoming universities like the USI.

We need the fresh approaches and public-spirited drive of universities like yours, whose discoveries our diplomats are ready to give voice to – with the necessary wisdom, I hope.

My heartfelt congratulations once again, and my hope that the USI community will continue to nurture its 'knowledge labs' so that Switzerland may lead the way, in the service of humanity. Of each and every one of us.

Thank you.

Ignazio Cassis
Federal Councillor


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