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Can digital tools and social media serve as the olive branch for science diplomacy in South Asia?

Can digital tools and social media serve as the olive branch for science diplomacy in South Asia?

Authors – Karishma S Kaushik*, Syed Ghulam Musharraf*, Monir Uddin Ahmed, Nova Ahmed, Muhammad Farooq, Almas Taj Awan, Syed Abbas, Suraj Bhattarai, Anindita Bhadra, Mahesh Kumar, Uttam Shreshtha, Meghnath Dhimal

  1.  Department of Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University, India
  2. H.E.J. Research Institute of Chemistry, International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS), University of Karachi, Pakistan
  3. Department of Medical Laboratories, College of Applied Medical Sciences, Qassim University, Saudi Arabia; Editor and Founder, Scientific Bangladesh
  4. North-South University, Bangladesh
  5. The UWA Institute of Agriculture, The University of Western Australia, Australia
  6. Department of Plant Sciences, College of Agricultural and Marine Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman
  7. Senior Researcher, Institute of Advanced Studies, Sao Paulo, Brazil
  8. School of Basic Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, India
  9. Global Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, Kathmandu, Nepal
  10. Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, India
  11. Indian Institute of Technology, Jodhpur, India
  12. University of Southern Queensland, Australia
  13. Nepal Health Research Council, Kathmandu, Nepal

*Corresponding authors

karishmaskaushik@gmail.com (KSK), musharraf1977@yahoo.com (SGM)

The authors are members of the Science Diplomacy in South Asia working group at the Global Young Academy (GYA)

South Asia is the most populous geographic region of the world, with ~1.94 billion residents and a large youth population. In spite of recent economic growth, the region continues to face long-standing issues of terrorism, civil war, disputed territories, as well as poverty, illiteracy, insufficient healthcare and climate crisis, that threaten stability and development. Given these common challenges, science and technology cooperation among the countries of South Asia holds vast potential for the collective growth of the region (Lavakare 1996; Shrestha and Bhadra 2019). However, it is these regional challenges that have posed serious barriers to building frameworks for scientific exchange, both at a scholarly as well as the societal level (Shrestha and Bhadra 2019). Successful models of regional scientific cooperation, for example across the European Union, include programs such as joint funding calls for mutual priority areas, regional mobility of researchers, and incentives for inter-country collaborative networks. However, implementing these approaches presents unique challenges in the context of South Asia. At an individual level, scientists and scholars often face travel restrictions between countries or delayed visa processing for official engagements (reasons include military regimes, civil unrest, strained diplomatic ties, etc). At the national level, concerns related to security and sovereignty preclude collaborative partnerships in areas of space research, satellite technology, and cybersecurity between certain countries. Together, this complex geopolitical landscape has contributed to the lack of success of regional organization-based scientific initiatives and the glaring absence of a unifying scientific enterprise in South Asia (Shrestha and Bhadra 2019). In this background, establishing networks of science diplomacy is critical towards building an environment conducive to scientific exchange and collaboration (Berkman 2018). While the Science Diplomacy in South Asia working group at the Global Young Academy (GYA) is one such initiative, there is an imperative need for more platforms of engagement, particularly those initiated from within the region.

In recent times, digital platforms have opened up cross-boundary conversations with minimal resource requirements for engagement (Westcott 2008; Fisher and Nasrin 2021). For the science ecosystem in South Asia, this presents a never-before opportunity to leverage the digital space for science diplomacy, with the potential to mitigate challenges related to mobility and costs. In this article, we outline four digital-based approaches, with evidence of successful implementation in different contexts that can be explored to promote scientific exchange in the region. The approaches span scientist, student, citizen, and organizational levels, and use a range of established and emerging digital tools. The initiation and implementation of these approaches could serve as a starting point towards building a digitally-connected hub for scientific cooperation in South Asia.

Scientific exchange using webinar technology: Internet infrastructure has rapidly increased in most countries in South Asia, and the recent pandemic underscored the importance of scientific exchange using webinar technology. This provides an opportunity for scientists in South Asia with overlapping focus areas to initiate virtual contact and build potential collaborations. Given the value and strength of building international collaborations, this virtual access could provide a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to explore opportunities of mutual benefit. It would also serve as an important initial step to open lines of communication between working scientists in the region. (Gewin 2018; Kontar et al. 2021).

Remote education and Massive Open Online Courses: Pandemic-related national lockdowns have resulted in a pivot to digital schooling and enabled remote educational access, including in certain peripheral parts of the region (Menon 2020). Going forward, this can be leveraged to facilitate teaching collaborations and joint science courses among schools and colleges. In anticipation of the internet and device-related challenges associated with real-time delivery of content, this exchange could also be via the collaborative development of massive open online course modules (MOOCs) and sharing of archived content developed by colleges and universities. Beyond knowledge skill-building, and resource sharing, this educational exchange would foster interactions among youth, who are future decision-making citizens and leaders in the region (Barger 2020; Beattie, Hippenmeyer, and Pauler 2020; UNESCO News).

Social media for citizen science: Social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, are powerful channels for societal access. These digital platforms enable cross-boundary discussions, and provide insights into neighboring societies, including between nations in the political and diplomatic standoff (Duncombe 2018; Ahmed et al. 2021). Social media provides the opportunity to build regional citizen science platforms (Liberatore et al. 2018; Edwards et al. 2021). This could be relevant in addressing issues related to vaccine hesitancy and scientific myths common to the region, as well as building communities of science enthusiasts (birdwatchers, ecologists, conservationists for example). Importantly, this exchange will establish contacts between citizens, and foster virtual interactions beyond personal dogmas and allegiances.

Access to cross-border digital science conclaves and conferences: Scientific academies in the region can lead the building of working groups and chapters to foster formal scientific exchange in the region (Ahmed et al. 2021). While individual researchers in South Asia often collaborate with international colleagues (most often in Europe and North America), national science academies could organize virtual conferences and seminars with guest scientists from across the region, as well as possibly co-organize regional science conclaves. Given that leaders of national academies often provide inputs and advisories at the governmental level (Turekian et al. 2014), this would not only open channels of formal digital science diplomacy but also hold potential for wider conflict resolution and cooperation in the region (Koppelman et al. 2010; Turchetti and Lalli 2020; Jacobsen and Olšáková 2020; Jarquin-Solis and Mauduit 2021).

Currently, scientific exchanges across the region of South Asia can be considered minimal, and are not optimally harnessing the potential of large-scale digital connectivity (Ahmed et al. 2021). Digital technologies have certainly played a catalytic role in the growth of scientific and academic enterprise across several countries in South Asia. For the scientific ecosystems in these countries to leverage these gains towards the broader mandate of region-building present a low-hanging olive branch.




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About the Authors: The authors are members of the Science Diplomacy in South Asia working group at the Global Young Academy (GYA). This group is currently led by Dr. Karishma S Kaushik, MD, PhD, Savitribai Phule Pune University, India and Dr. Syed Ghulam Musharraf, PhD (Tamgha-e-Imtiaz), International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS), University of Karachi, Pakistan

Their details can be found here: https://globalyoungacademy.net/activities/science-diplomacy

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