How science diplomacy can make a difference in global health

Prior to the adoption of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, the World Health Organization had worked for many years to prevent tobacco harm with the goal of adopting an international tobacco control treaty. However, the agreement did not go forward.

“The real breakthrough came when scientific evidence emerged showing the negative effects of second-hand smoke and its impact on children,” says Ilona Kickbusch, founding director of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute in Geneva Garry Aslanian in the new episode of the Global Health Matters podcast. “That data and that evidence really made a significant difference in getting the negotiations going.”

Thanks to this development, the Convention was finally adopted and became the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO. Today the agreement includes 182 parties covering over 90% of the world’s population.

According to Kickbusch, the congress embodies an important example of how science and diplomacy can complement each other to achieve a goal or drive change. The expert discusses the role of science diplomacy in global health with Aslanyan and Aída Mencía Ripley, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the Universidad Iberoamericana in the Dominican Republic.

Ripley shares how science diplomacy in the Dominican Republic has been key to overcoming the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were able to use science diplomacy to build some bridges and provide some of the early COVID sequencing data for our country,” she recalls. “Thanks to some of these international collaborations, we were actually one of the first countries in the region to be able to do that.”

Kickbusch also notes that the pandemic has highlighted how many global health issues are also influenced by ideology, making hard evidence crucial.

“To be able to come together and create a global consensus, we also need to transcend ideologies and have really, really good data,” she says. “We can see that over the years, particularly on sexual health issues in the broadest sense of the word, many of the international agreements, such as those guaranteeing access to medicines for stigmatized groups, have only been possible because we the hard science decreed.”

Another important element of consensus building is the promotion of trust in governments and institutions, say the two experts.

“We are in a situation where trust in science and politics is not as strong as it was ten or twenty years ago,” says Kickbusch. “We really need to work on that trust. We need to work on health literacy. We need to work on science literacy, both among the general population and among policy makers and diplomats.”

Ripley emphasizes that in addressing health problems on a global scale, it is essential to consider not only the hard science but also the context of each society.

“Global health is currently completely over-medicalized,” she emphasizes. “I think some of the nuances that the social and behavioral sciences bring to the table are critical because we need to be able to understand people’s socioeconomic and political contexts to ensure we’re accommodating people, particularly.” when we ask them to make major changes in their way of life, as we have been doing during the pandemic.”

Listen to previous episodes of Global Health Matters on Health Policy Watch.

Photo credit: TDR.

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