In the heavily divided post-World War II environment in which NATO was established, its science programme was designed to show practical cooperation across barriers of nationality, language and culture through scientific exchanges.
Initially, NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme drew a clear distinction between supporting civilian science and NATO defence cooperation. Its work concentrated on the physical sciences. Later it took in biological, environmental and social sciences.
Following the end of the Cold War, the emphasis changed towards solidarity, stability and peace, using scientific research increasingly in diplomacy.
The programme reinvented itself in the 1990s, focusing on partnership with the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The NATO Science programme has had to be flexible in responding to the demands of the times.
After 9/11, the objectives changed again, due to the proliferation of new technologies, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and the information revolution.
At its peak, some 10,000 scientists were involved, with over 6,000 scientists participating in over 100 NATO scientific meetings, and about 100 volumes of scientific papers were published annually. Recently, over 2,500 Fellowships have been funded for partner country scientists, and an annual prize has been established for the most prestigious and relevant research.
The NATO Science programme has had to be flexible in responding to the demands of the times. Today, its mission is to address the new threat of international terrorism, as well as modern threats.
The SPS Programme is overseen by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) with an SPS Committee of senior scientists who advise PDD. The programme has a unique network of 57 states: 26 member States, 24 Partner nations and 7 Mediterranean nations.
In terms of results, the construction of the Virtual Silk Highway is a highly successful satellite-based regional system. It allows Internet connections for the first time in three Caucasian and five Central Asian new independent states, with one earth station per country. Afghanistan is now part of the network, which is managed by support from Germany and the EU. The SPS Committee has agreed to continue funding this important initiative and the success of this venture has been unanimously endorsed by all NATO countries and their partners.
The NATO-SPS Programme has had to evolve from its early beginnings to the present day threats. But does it have a future? I would say – yes it does!
science has become central to many policies, including the demand for new assessments of the environmental impact of climate change
Why? First, because ‘security’ includes non-military threats arising from incompetent governance, corruption, organised crime, insecure borders, ethnic and religious conflict, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, shortage of natural resources and, of course, terrorism: areas where science has a key role to play.
Second, science has become central to many policies, including the demand for new assessments of the environmental impact of climate change, the need for better models of disease spread, and the provision of food security, particularly in less developed nations.
Third, the current SPS Programme provides a unique opportunity to contribute to world peace by enhancing science and innovation cooperation with all partners. It has a ‘horizon-scanning’ role raising NATO’s awareness of new challenges and opportunities, and is tasked to find solutions to new challenges primarily through non-military means.
However, more is needed to support scientific work in NATO. The science budget represents only around 5% of the total civil NATO budget. This limited funding could be used more effectively to counter international terrorism through greater collaborative efforts. But collaboration with the EU still has a low profile. So too does science in NATO – mention of it is largely missing from NATO’s key publications.
With the shift in the NATO Science Committee’s priorities towards military and defence strategies, there is a strong case for looking into how integrated public diplomacy and research/technology organisations are.
It is well over a decade since NATO’s civil science programme was reviewed by a high level team. Hopefully a new review will recognise the key role of science and technology in global security and stability, and acknowledge that fresh instruments and organisations may be needed for the twenty first century.
Further details of the programme can be accessed at