Friday, September 15, 2006

UNESCO Overall Review of its Science Programs

As the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO informed in its last newsletter, UNESCO has charged an international committee with the responsibility for an overall review of its Natural science Program and its Social and Human Sciences. A website has been constructed providing many details on the review including webcasts of the Committee meetings. The evaluation has emphasized the major International Scientific Programs (ISPs):
* The International Hydrological Program (IHP), The Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB),
* The program of The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC),
* The International Geoscience Program (IGCP),
* The International Basic Sciences and Engineering Program (IBSP), and
* The Management of Social Transformations Program (MOST).

Sophie Hebden has just published a good article in SciDev.Net, occasioned by the interim progress report on the committee's work.

In the Heat of the Debate

Some of the key points in the report on the first phase of the Committee's review were:
(i) UNESCO has a unique role to play in the sciences in today's world, given its international credibility, its special mandate for science within the United Nations system, its ability to act as a facilitator for developing countries to participate in research and development, including the support of networks, and to ensure the articulation of research results in global, regional and nationaendeavorsrs. These strengths are central to its vital role as a capacity builder.

(ii) UNESCO also has a critical role in facilitating global, regional and country-level science policy development by improving the base of relevant scientific research knowledge and communication of that knowledge. This role is consistent with UNESCOÂ’s multilateral standing, its cross-disciplinary capability, its financial capacity and its respected global reach to both governments and civil society.

(iii) However, the Organization is not exploiting these comparative advantages through dynamic, innovative and interdisciplinaprogrammedmes, which would exemplify leadership in the sciences, reflect emerging global priorities, and avoid duplication with other United Nations bodies and non-governmental organizations.

(iv) The science programs lack a high and uniform level of transparency across their management and budget activities, including detailed project-level personnel allocations, and adherence to standard procedures in such areas as selection of projects, evaluation of results, including performance indicators and sunset clauses in the management of activities.

(v) Within the science programs, there are too many small and isolated projects, involving direct action or funding efforts, which show little or no demonstrable impact relative to the efforts of other United Nations agencies.

(v) The numerous ISPs, each with their respective decision-making processes and bodies, operate too autonomously, in separate 'silos', despite the considerable mutual overlap both within programs and with many outside bodies. Thus, they fail to exploit their potential for enhansed synergies through more strategic coordination with related activities across the United Nations system, as well as through administrative coordination.

(vi) Intersectoral interdisciplinary activity both within the two Science Sectors and across the Organization is inadequate. In large part, this reflects a staffing and budget structure, which together creates a culture which hinders efforts to promote such activities. Therefore, UNESCO is missing the opportunity to design and manage programs in a manner which reflects the inherent interdisciplinary nature of all of today'’s major global problems.

(vii) The science programs lack visibility in the international arena, and reflect both their current limited impact and UNESCOÂ's ineffective coordination and cooperation with other international science organizations, such as the International Council for Sciences. Furthermore, UNESCO is failing to take advantage of its National Commissions, field offices, Centers, institutes, ISP Committees and Chairs to promote its programs. The absence of an effective communications strategy involving such proactive outreach, including to various forms of the media, is a great hindrance to UNESCO's efforts to promote its leadership in the sciences.

Sophie Hebden in preparing for the story in SciDev.Net did a couple of email interviews which I have obtained ane which throw some light on the issues. Both Peter Tindemans and I (John Daly) were speaking as individuals, and not as representatives of any organizations.

An interview with Peter Tindemans:

SH: Can you fill me in some context for this: how major this is for UNESCO's science programs: will the findings create a lot of waves? How serious do you see this criticism? How often are reviews done? Are you surprised by its findings and why has it taken until now for them to be identified? She also asked specifically about issues iv through vii listed above.

PT: It seems clear that the resolution at the basis of the Review was instigated by the Nordic countries. All five of them are mentioned next UK, France and Slovenia. It certainly reflects a long-standing uneasiness among countries about the way UNESCO functions. Isolated kingdoms, poor management, no ability to break loose from old habits. That said, countries realise that much of the blame falls on themselves. And much is inherent in an organisation like UNESCO with almost 200 member states and a very broad mandate.

Normally the composition of such a commitee is a matter of the member countries. The Ambassadors at UNESCO suggest candidates and some diplomatic wrangling leads to the result -- the US, Russia, China, India, Japan, the UK, a Nordic country and then of course several developing countries being the almost inevitable candidates. I would guess that most of the members have in fact been siggested by the National UNESCO committees, and I would also guess therefore that most of them have experience with UNESCO activities.

The focus of the review is clearly on the five or programs that are listed in the review document: MAB, IOC etc. But while I understand most of the criticism, I feel that the committee should have been much more explicit. It is now quite general, will certainly please the ambassadors of the developed nations (with the exception the Japanese one who sits there to protect Matsuura), but there is also much one could argue with, I believe.

A few examples.
(iii) they ask for innovative, interdisciplinary programs, exemplifying leadership and reflecting emerging global priorities. I would say that most programs are fairly interdisciplinary and do reflect crucial global priorities. The problem is that the Committee expects direct action, i.e. the funding of research which then would exemplfy leadership. But look at the budgets. A major program like the IOC has a UNESCO budget of a few million dollars, on top of that there are maybe 20 or so millions coming from governments, but they usually have their own conditions. You cannot fund meaningful real research that can compete with the hundreds of millions or even billions that governments and research agencies fund. The consequence is either coordination or investing im centers. I am not really up to date with respect to the programs themselves, but IOC had quite a good name in the past. It is a difficult structure, but it did play a strong role in global oceanographic research (which by the way is in itself a very interdisciplinary field). A couple of the centers get high marks. The Trieste center does so; the IHE in Delft (but that was an existing high quality Dutch center which is still largely funded by the Dutch government).

iv) is no doubt true, but also partially the result of the conditions of governments for their additional contributions.

(v) reflects the unrealistic wish for direct fundign of research.

(vi) 'numerous' is not fair: there are five, or if you count the ISBP, six so-called ISPs. I don't think it is fair either to reproach UNESCO of not coordinating enough with other UN bodies. The UN members should abolish many of the new bodies they have created after UNESCO.

(vii) I am not sure whether the programs lack visibility. They played (and maybe play, that is what I don't know) a useful coordinating and rallying role, e.g. in oceanography or biodiversity. They cannot compete with an NSF program, but that is not their goal.

An interview with me (John Daly)

SH. Do you have time to provide a comment on the review's findings?

JD. It is hard to judge the quality of a program from a distance, which is why there are independent evaluations. The evaluation team seems very selected, and of course they have yet to deliver their final verdict.

SH. I wonder what you mean by the panel being 'highly selected' - are you referring to its independence?

JD. The panel seems to be very well selected. Its members all seem individually to have had long, distinguished careers. Obviously a lot of thought went in balance, trying to get a cross-section of scientific expertise, geographic balance, North-South balance, balance in understanding science policy and administration of scientific activities versus research and teaching science, and gender balance.

SH. Which criticisms are most critical for science and development in developing nations?

JD. I think two criticisms are most critical in terms of the benefits UNESCO could and should bring to science in developing nations:

* "UNESCO is missing the opportunity to design and man programs in a manner which reflects the inherent interdisciplinary nature of all of today's major global problems."
* "UNESCO is failing to take advantage of its National Commissions, field offices, centers, institutes, ISP Committees and Chairs to promote its programs."

SH. How do they conflict with UNESCO's remit for facilitating developing nation participation in the scientific enterprise?

JD. Developing countries need to make the most of their scarce scientific resources; the last thing they need is to have UNESCO leading them down the wrong path, and puting science in "silos" would be the wrong path.

UNESCO's best information on local circumstances in developing countries should usually be found in National Commissions and field offices, as its best scientific information should normally be found in the institutes, ISP committees, and chairs. UNESCO's organizational problem is bringing the best information from diverse source to bear on the key decisions.

SH. Have any of the criticisms been raised before - are you surprised by any of them?

JD. While the team has stressed that UNESCO plays an important and sometimes critical role in capacity building, I was still surprised by how negative some of the comments seemed. Of course, UNESCO has been involved in a long term reform effort, and there remain areas in which the science programs can still be improved.

Comment: The Committee may of course change its views in the next six months. The Secretariat will have the opportunity to interact more with the Committee, and to prepare the Secretariat's response to the final report of the Committee. The report and response will go before the Executive Board, composed of representatives of member countries, many of whom have significant resources devoted to understanding and participating in UNESCO's science programs. Then they may go to the General Conference of all the member states. It is early days still.

Of course one expects significant reforms to be made after such a study. The science programs can be made more efficient, even more relevant to global problems than they are today, and more effective. One hopes that the Committee will focus on the problems that can be fixed, and not on those inherent in the nature of a multinational organization with 200 member states and a large part of its financing in extra-budgetary resources contributed with ties by specific member nations.

Ultimately, I think Peter Tindemans' comments raise the issue of exactly what the governments want UNESCO to do with its science programs. Is it to be:
* A discussion forum, with the ability to catalyze international science programs? I think some of the oceanographic and hydrological programs have functioned in this way with great success.
* A technical assistance agency encouraging the development of science policy and scientific capacity in developing nations? I think the program has had some success in these functions.
* An organization funding scientific research and development. As Peter says, there is not much money available if that is the purpose.
* A combination of these and more functions. This tends to be the result of decisions made by representatives of 200 nations, unless guided by a strong Secretariat and Executive Board.

I hope that an outcome of the review process is a clear statement of the mission of the science programs, focusing on technical assistance and catalyzing scientific collaboration among nations to clarify our understanding of global and regional problems such as water scarcity and distribution and the loss of biological diversity. I would be pleased if the review process also resulted in a more cost effective science program that would justify and receive more funding.

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