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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Three shifts for improving the governance of emerging technologies

By Basil Mahfouz, on 11 June 2022

Without a coordinated global response, emerging technologies could quickly transform our world into a dystopia. By 2050, the lack of climate action may push mankind towards experimenting with planetary systems via geoengineering, lethal autonomous weapon systems could be deciding who lives and who doesn’t, while neuro-technologies will challenge the definition of what it means to be human.

To understand how to manage the societal impact of these technologies, on 16 May 2022, I joined 29 other specialists representing 21 countries at the Science Diplomacy Week Immersion Programme, a forum co-organised by the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

The discussions highlighted that effectively governing frontier technologies requires three fundamental shifts across international science diplomacy: (1) adopting a proactive approach towards solving challenges, (2) leveraging cutting-edge computational tools, and (3) systemically scaling access to scientific knowledge.

Together with leaders from 12 Geneva-based organisations, including the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organisation, Professor Petteri Taalas, and Former President of Switzerland, Micheline Calmy-Rey, we explored a new era in science diplomacy revolving around climate change, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and neuro-technologies. On the one hand, these fields provide an opportunity for exponentially improving the quality of human life. On the other hand, misapplied, the technologies can have detrimental consequences. Regulations need to ensure that the risks from these technologies are mitigated, and the benefits of these technologies are shared equitably, without stifling innovation.

Moving beyond the specificities of each technical domain, improving the capacity of modern decision making is key for effective regulation. During the opening plenary of Science & Diplomacy Week, Sir Peter Gluckman, President of the International Science Council, said that “the multilateral system has not been effective at addressing global challenges”. This is partly because the conventional modus operandi in international policymaking is reactive, responding to problems after they emerge. Instead, regulating emerging technologies requires a proactive approach that anticipates future scenarios and prepares for them. To this end, a new generation of science diplomats are needed to bridge the gap between scientists and policymakers by scanning the horizon of frontier technologies and laying the groundwork for regulations. One example is GESDA’s Science Breakthrough Radar, which is pooling insights from over 500 experts to predict the likely breakthroughs and societal impact of frontier technologies such as the Quantum Revolution & Advanced AI, Human Augmentation, and Geoengineering, over the next 25 years.

As emerging technologies develop, so does their potential for aiding international diplomacy. For example, SiD Lab presented to us how they are utilising machine learning to help negotiators identify opportunities for collaboration by rapidly mapping evidence. Further, a panel discussion hosted by the Diplo Foundation highlighted how the United Nations leveraged AI tools to automatically verify the identities of 40,000 registered representatives for last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP 26), effectively enabling larger and wider representation in the negotiations. Finally, the UN also applied natural language processing to monitor the public’s sentiment on the negotiations in real-time, helping to inform the debates. Integrating modern technology into everyday aspects of diplomacy will significantly improve the international community’s ability to regulate.

Beyond promoting a culture shift towards more proactive policy making and integrating new instruments, the dynamics of science diplomacy need to be improved at a systemic level. Keeping in mind the sheer complexity of modern challenges, the rapid pace in which new technologies are being developed, and their potential to disrupt human life, the multilateral system should move towards the streamlined integration of scientific evidence and the meaningful inclusion of stakeholders at scale.

The current gold standard for large scale international scientific collaboration is the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). During our visit, CERN showcased their framework that enables thousands of participating scientists from research organisations worldwide to collaborate on building cutting-edge infrastructure, running experiments, sharing results, and spinning-out high-tech products. However, large research collaborations like CERN are rare, and the speed to build such organisations for other fields may not match the accelerating pace of technological change and the increasing urgency of global challenges. A new, more agile approach may be needed to effectively facilitate international scientific collaboration, at a scale that involves not thousands, but millions of potential stakeholders and leverages the vast amount of data and scientific evidence available.

To this end, my doctoral research at University College London (UCL) is applying cutting edge methods, including bibliometrics and natural language processing, to understand the dynamics of how knowledge spreads into policy and beyond. By leveraging the Elsevier International Centre for the Study of Research’s vast database, we are analysing the metadata of scientific publications and their citations to map the utilisation of science across policy on a national, regional, and international level. The goal is to identify patterns that either enable or block the diffusion of knowledge into governance, helping us design new instruments for scaling science-based policy making.

In the SCOPUS database, for example, there are over 11 million indexed scientific articles published about climate change, AI, neurotechnology, and quantum computing combined. There are also tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of stakeholders with relevant expertise across each of these topics worldwide. Scientometric methods and semantic analysis can help us track how these publications are currently being referenced across policy and the extent to which their authors are having impact. We can then identify new ways to leverage knowledge, and in combination with modern tools, more effectively integrate evidence and expertise into policy making. By improving the international system’s capacity to leverage science, not only can we overcome the complex issues posed by emerging technologies, but also more effectively tackle the challenges of tomorrow.


Basil Mahfouz is a Ph.D. Candidate at University College London (UCL) leveraging cutting edge methods to map the dynamics and impact of science on society.  His research is supervised by Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan and Professor Licia Capra at UCL and is supported by Elsevier’s International Centre for the Study of Research.

This post was originally published by The UN Brief on 06 June, 2022.

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