Science diplomacy in a global network - COST Association: An interview with Katalin Alföldi


The necessity to integrate scientific knowledge into global policy, diplomacy, and the international relations environment have become crucial as European societies face more interdependent concerns. Science diplomacy is a significant notion in this context, and it focuses on maximising the benefits of open science, internationalisation, and responsible research and development. Within this context, the COST networks are valuable and important ecosystems.

The European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) is a funding organisation for the creation of research networks, called COST Actions. These networks offer an open space for collaboration among scientists globally and thereby give impetus to research advancements and innovation.

Science diplomacy has been identified as a critical instrument for addressing global concerns by bringing policy, diplomacy, and international relations together. In this context, COST's expertise, accumulated over 50 years of connecting interdisciplinary research networks, has a lot to offer and may make a significant contribution to the growing relevance of this area. The open (new partners can join at any time during the Action's lifetime) and inclusive (partners from all relevant fields and backgrounds) characteristics of COST Actions translates the potential for these collaborative open spaces to increasingly feed discussions and add concrete experience and knowledge to existing practice in science diplomacy.

For the past year, COST has been focusing on specific activities that promote science diplomacy, and it is committed to continuing to look for ways to contribute further. The dedicated workshops are a positive step forward, and they build on the specific experience of numerous COST Actions whose research activities serve and contribute to science diplomacy’s purpose.

As a result, in this interview, we asked Katalin Alföldi, COST policy officer, a few key questions on how COST is transforming and engaging with science diplomacy worldwide. The COST network, its influence, and its function in research and diplomacy are the subject of the questions. Katalin's expertise and viewpoint on this topic will, we believe, resonate with a broad audience and provide an insightful look into the institutional perspective.

Katalin Alföldi began her career as a member of one of the negotiator teams for Hungary and the European Commission on the 'Acquis Communautaire' concerning environment and nature conservation. She was a member of the Research and Innovation Framework Programme Committee. Katalin worked at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, contributing to designing the international Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) collaboration strategy. While working at the Hungarian Permanent Representation to the EU, Katalin negotiated various council conclusions and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology's Budapest seat arrangement. She holds a Master's degree in international relations and economics. Katalin Alföldi is currently a policy officer at the COST Association where she leads the 'Global Networking' and 'Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation' tasks.

COST’s role in science diplomacy

Murat Gunes: For 50 years, the COST organisation has been offering support and funding to set up collaborative interdisciplinary networks of researchers and innovators across Europe and beyond. How can this knowledge help COST to play an important role in science diplomacy in Europe and around the world?

Katalin Alföldi: COST is one of the longest-running research funding organisations in Europe addressing challenges in an intergovernmental approach. COST's core mission is to act as a funding organisation for the creation of research networks, called COST Actions. These networks offer an open space for collaboration among researchers and innovators across Europe and beyond, growing their ideas in any science and technology field and sharing them with their peers.

The COST Programme is operated by the COST Association with 40 members, including Turkey and the countries of the Western Balkans, with Israel as a Cooperating Member and South Africa as a Partner Member. The two COST members who most recently joined are Georgia and Ukraine.

Openness and inclusivity are the strongest assets and the most relevant characteristics of the COST Actions, enabling them to contribute to science diplomacy. These features allow for the development of solid and long-lasting relations among scientists, researchers, and stakeholders, providing strong global networks for almost any scientific topic. Being open and inclusive also means reaching out and connecting with less connected researchers, resulting in highly interdisciplinary and open COST Actions, (e.g., CA16202, CA16123, net4age, transport automation) further contributing to the internationalisation process of research and innovation.

The work and results brought by the COST Actions are addressed to decision-makers, including foreign policy and international organisations.

COST’s activities with regards to science diplomacy

Murat Gunes: COST has organised several workshops, seminars, and webinars on science diplomacy. What are the general motivations and the purpose of gatherings? If you would like to summarise these events with one or two main achievements, what would be the takeaway?

Katalin Alföldi: Science diplomacy is well-tailored to the different types of COST Actions. These include networks with strong regional relevance, those addressing global challenges, or those focusing on academic aspects of foreign affairs. There are also those networks with topics that are indirectly linked to science diplomacy. However, where the collaboration is built and the cooperation established is important to researchers from countries whose state-level cooperation is experiencing difficulties in enabling experts from outside Europe to become trusted partners in their field.

COST undertakings in science diplomacy have also resulted in acknowledgment from practitioners, such as the S4D4C project’s Online knowledge resources and the collaboration with the European Science Diplomacy Alliance as well as from policymakers such as the input paper by the SFIC Science Diplomacy Task Force.

COST also organised its activities and held a workshop, as well as training on science diplomacy, addressed to COST Action Chairs.

COST is committed to further exploring its contribution to science diplomacy as a topic and offers COST Actions as platforms for this purpose. It can happen either as an unintended but existing added value, stemming out of the collaboration or as a clear research topic to focus on.

Science diplomacy is not the core concept of COST, but the COST concept resonates well with the needs and objectives of science diplomacy. It creates the platforms necessary for science to meet and understand (foreign) policy needs and realities in a mutually beneficial way.

Katalin Alföldi's diplomatic perspective

Murat Gunes: You are an experienced policy officer and task leader with important achievements in the context of European research policy. In addition, you work in a multicultural and continuously changing/adapting environment. Previously, you were a science counsellor at the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the EU. From a diplomatic perspective, how have you seen the intersection between science, technology, and policymaking, especially foreign policy, change over time?

Katalin Alföldi: The emphasis is on the notion of intersection, as science diplomacy is the intersection of science, technology, policymaking, and foreign affairs. The creation of new and use of existing knowledge and how to best utilise it to serve national, regional, or economic interests makes the intersections unique.

Working at this intersection gives a special perspective, belonging to neither side but knowing both, being able to recognise the results and facilitate the communication. It allows observation of how the different communities get closer to each other, while better understanding the needs of all of them.

COST and the work it is performing is positioned at the intersection described above. It creates platforms for collaborations aiming to find scientific answers and address global challenges. These platforms build trust and provide the necessary safety, allowing failure and offering a chance to restart in a low-risk and secure way, creating a fertile breeding ground for the development of much-needed new ideas, approaches, and solutions.

On a personal note, one of the most interesting parts of my career is composed of representing the interests of my home country coupled with cooperation with other colleagues, creating alliances on variable geometry, depending on the topic and the interest. It’s never been boring.

Murat Gunes
Founding Coordinator of the MCAA Task Force on Science Diplomacy
Chair of the MCAA Bridging Science and Business Working Group
Assistant Professor, Department of of Physics,
Faculty of Arts and Sciences, EBYU, Erzincan, Turkey

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