Sunday, October 22, 2006

UNESCO's science mandate

UNESCO's overall review of its science programs and David Dickson's editorials on the subject have triggered a couple of long postings on this blog:
* UNESCO Overall Review of its Science Programs

* Does UNESCO needs a more strategic approach to science?
This is a crucial time in the rethinking of UNESCO's approach to the natural sciences and to the social and human sciences. We are therefore posting this thoughtful piece on the topic, with the permission of Sid Passman, a member of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO. Sid was Director of the Division of Scientific Research and Higher Education of UNESCO from 1973 to 1081.
Dickson seems alone in commenting on UNESCO's science mandate.

I would hope that we can encourage more discussion--e.g. there should be some who would like to point to the success of disciplinary programs and institutes in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, informatics, life sciences, etc. Science teaching, ethics, public understanding of science and capacity building and training programs are all worth preserving.

Strategies and policies are all well and good (if they reflect relative experiences and are consistent with national constraints--but support of training and institutional capacity building are not to be dismissed.

In any case more resources for a decentralized UNESCO are vital.

Sid Passman
In response to Sid's call for comment, let me suggest that it is very important that UNESCO continue to focus its efforts in science on development and poverty reduction. Fortunately, with each member country having a vote in UNESCO's policy setting General Conference, there is little likelihood that that priority would be challenged. Still, I would emphasize that UNESCO with its tiny budget could contribute little to the scientific collaboration among rich countries, and there are many other multinational mechanisms promoting such collaboration. On the other hand, UNESCO can play a vital role in developing nations, and can help keep their eyes on the target of poverty reduction.

I would also note that UNESCO's science program appears fragmented in part because UNESCO shares governance of major portions of that program because it hosts serveral international programs and includes several international centers. The division of the program into these parts has some very positive aspects. Thus, countries have in the past and may in the future resign their membership in UNESCO; the United States, however, maintained active presence in some of the international programs when it did so for 18 years. The International Commissions running specific programs are well established, and can draw on specific expertise in the fields of concern. They may also be able to draw more voluntary contributions than might UNESCO as a whole.

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