Thursday, September 21, 2006

Does UNESCO needs a more strategic approach to science?

Read the full editorial by David Dickson in SciDev.Net (19 September 2006).

This is a thoughtful piece, by someone uniquely placed to understand the scientific capacity and scientific needs of developing nations. Dickson also clearly understands the bureaucratic realities of large organizations, and the political realities of multinational governance. I quote his final comments, but strongly recommend the entire piece to those interested in UNESCO.
Some have suggested that the UN headquarters in New York, United States, should house a strategy office for science (see UN to set up science advisory mechanism). But this has so far failed to make much progress, partly because of resistance from some technical agencies — who fear, perhaps correctly, that it could impinge on their 'turf' — and partly because no one wants to cover the extra costs of a new science advisory mechanism at the UN headquarters.

But the need still exists. And UNESCO, for all its current weaknesses, could be well-placed to adopt such a role. Its remit would embrace many of the agency's current activities, stretching from issues such as the need to harmonise regulations for science-based technologies, to enhancing the public understanding of science and the better use of scientific evidence in political decision-making.

But before it can fulfil this role effectively, two things need to change.

First, UNESCO's mandate for science should give more focus to strategic issues rather than the implementation of scientific programmes. Sharp questions need to be asked, such as whether UNESCO is the appropriate agency to fund projects in areas such as water technology and hydrology.

The second requirement is that any funds freed up are used to ensure that UNESCO is properly resourced, particularly in terms of appropriately trained staff, to carry out its mandate effectively. All too often, UNESCO's failure has not been in identifying needs, but in its ability to persuade governments in both developed and developing countries to address these needs effectively.

At a time when science is returning to the international development agenda, the need for effective and workable strategic advice, particularly in countries such as those in Africa, is now stronger than ever. It is up to UNESCO, hopefully with guidance from the review committee when it presents its final report next year, to demonstrate whether it has the skills and commitment required to meet the challenge.

Editorial Comment: Perhaps the U.N. Commission for Science and Technology for Development is even better placed than UNESCO to provide "a strategy office for science" in the U.N. system. Unfortunately, its secretariat was moved from New York to Europe more than a decade ago, and it has not played as important a role in the U.N. system as it might have. It has been said that the most important determinant of the success of an advisory body is the willingness of its clients to be advised. I am not sure that the representatives of the member nations of the United Nations are very willing to utilize scientific advice. I would also note that the InterAcademy Council is one of a number of alternative sources of scientific advice available to the international community.

The United Nations system includes many agencies that include sector-specific scientific and technological responsiblities within their charters -- for example, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP), and the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). UNESCO's role in science and technology must be complementary to those of the other organizations in the system.

UNESCO is well placed to deal with science and technology education, including engineering education. Strong coordination between its various programs would seem to be called for to maximize its S&T education impact.

It is also well placed to deal with basic science. First, as Pope Benedict XIV has recently stressed, science-based reason serves as one of the pilars of peace among men. UNESCO's role in the promotion of reason for the promotion of peace remains paramount. I suggest that it is the fundamental sciences that most support the application of reason to understanding the world. Second, while the basic sciences underly all of the applied sciences and technologies of the other mission agencies of the U.N. system, none of them has the charter nor the capacity to promote the basic sciences in the way that UNESCO does.

Economic development requires the effective management of natural resources, and the effective management of these resources requires a strong scientific support. Indeed, countries have found that governments need to invest in the descriptive sciences to understand their mineral, water, biological and marine resources, and that they can not depend on the private sector to provide the scientific information required. UNESCO's geology, hydrology, oceanography and biological science programs thus have an important niches in the U.N. science system.

Sustainable economic development also requires prudent concern for the environment, and environmental conservation requires strong scientific support. UNESCO's programs, provide this support, and provide a means for legitimating scientific information so that it is more likely to be accepted and acted upon by political decision makers. The Man in the Biosphere program, with very few resources of its own, plays an important role in mobilizing support for biosphere reserves.

Remembering the tsunami of December, 2004, it is hard to take exception with UNESCO's work promoting the development of a Pacific Ocean tsunami warning system. While the World Meteorological Organization provides a site for meteorological and climatological expertise within the United Nations system, UNESCO's programs provide an important source of guidance for other disaster planning, warning, and mitigation systems. Earthquakes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, floods, and tsunamis not only cause loss of life every year, they have a huge economic impact.

Social science has been something of a stepchild in the development community, but it should not be. The International Financial Institutions (such as the World Bank Group and the International Monitary Fund) have carved out an obvious and important role in economics and especially the economics of development. The other mission agencies of the United Nations have supported and applied social sciences in their spheres of activity -- WHO in Health, FAO in agriculture, UNFPA in its population activities, etc. UNESCO's program on the Management of Social Transformations (MOST) fills a niche important for developing nations, which is not filled by other agencies. Yet there remain key areas of the fundamental social sciences which lack an effective guardian in the U.N. system other than UNESCO -- anthropology, sociology, geography, history, etc. In its social and human sciences programs, UNESCO promotes human rights and ethics.

An important aspect of UNESCO's social science program is its effort to tie social science research and development policy more closely. Surely national, regional and international social and economic policies should be thoroughly grounded research findings from the social and human sciences, but all too often they are not. The research-policy nexus has been of increasing concern everywhere, but especially in developing nations.

Dickson, in the body of his piece, correctly highlights the important role of UNESCO in science policy. Again, this must be properly understood. The other mission agencies all have roles in supporting the policy making of developing countries with respect to research, development and innovations within their sectors. I see a role for UNESCO in the U.N. system in support of policy for basic science, and indeed for the sciences of the public sector -- geologic survey, hydrological survey, biological survey, etc. Further, no agency in the U.N. system is better placed to provide advice to developing-country governments on the overall integration of their various science, technology and innovation policies.

Essentially, the above discussion suggests that UNESCO has sought to fill all the appropriate science niches left by the other U.N. mission agencies. I conclude, as does Dickson, that UNESCO does not have access to the resources necessary to fund enough research and development (R&D) in the natural or social sciences to make a difference. I think, however, that it can and should play a useful role in stimulating such R&D.

In the resource management related scientific fields, I would give high priority to capacity development for developing nations. This is a big job, and one for which UNESCO would have a comparative scientific advantage. By forming partnerships with other donors, especially the International Financial Institutions which have a comparative advantage in access to finance, as well as complementary influence to that of UNESCO with developing country governments, much might be done.

I think UNESCO's role in stimulating international cooperation in the resource management related scientific fields is worth careful consideration. It has played a useful role in the past in encouraging nations to work together on oceanographic science. Geological and hydrological structures do not respect political boundries among states, any more than do forests or wildlife. Moreover, while most scientists in these fields are located in the North, those scientists find many of the most interesting challenges in their disciplines in the South; UNESCO's international scientific bodies can help to catalyze the North-South partnerships that will help build capacity in the South while they help open scientific opportunities to scientists in the North. This is important work that the international scientific commissions of UNESCO would seem to do efficiently and well.

There seems to be consensus that UNESCO could be more efficient in carrying out its scientific responsibilities, and that it has been becoming so. I await the report of the Review team on how far UNESCO has progressed, and the urgency and budgetary support that should be assigned to further reforms.

UNESCO will have to face difficult issues in developing its next biennial plan and budget. I suspect it will not be able to attract the necessary resources from its donors to do all that should really be done, although perhaps the Review team can suggest an increase in funding would be well used by UNESCO's science programs. However, UNESCO will almost certainly have to make difficult choices about what not to do. It will have to allocate resources it can command among its programs, and indeed it may well have to reorganize its structure to reflect the changing priorities. It will have to make difficult choices among the possible activities within each program. It will have to make choices between efforts to be carried out centrally, and those to be delegated to the field.

Of course, UNESCO's Secretariat will make these decisions under the guidance of its Executive Council and its General Conference -- its overall governance structures. I hope that its Review team can provide guidance and illumination for the planning and budgetting processes, as they affect UNESCO's science programs. I also hope that the representatives of the member states on UNESCO's governing bodies are open to advice and reason.

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