Sunday, January 28, 2007

How the "S" got in UNESCO

UNESCO was originally conceived during World War II as an organization focusing on education. Science was not added to its charter until November 1945. Indeed, it was only on the sixth day of the international conference set up to create the organization that UNECO became UNESCO.

Joseph Needham is as important to the addition as anyone. Needham is best known as the author of a series of books on Chinese science and technology -- a series that changed opinions not only of Chinese history, but of the history of science and technology worldwide. He was also the first person to head the scientific sector of UNESCO. Needham began his career as a Cambridge biologist, but in 1943 was sent to China to establish a Sino-British Science Co-operation Office. There he became impressed with the need to build the scientific and technological capacity of not only China but of the Third World. He began to write other scientists to gain support for an initiative to transfer science and technology from the advanced nations to the third world, and when he learned of the proposed creation of an organization for scientific and cultural cooperation, he transferred his efforts to including science within its functions.

Julian Huxley, a distinguished biologies who was the brother of Aldous Huxley and grandson of Thomas H. Huxley (a defender of Darwin known as "Darwin's Bulldog"), was on the British delegation which hosted the Convention, and lent his support to the effort to include science in UNESCO's charter. Huxley later became the first Director-General of UNESCO,

The American scientific community too was influential in the effort. U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull explained to the press in March of 1944
Teachers, students and scientists have been singled out for special prosecution. Many have been imprisoned, deported or killed, particularly those refusing to collaborate with the enemy. In fact, the enemy is deliberately depriving the vicems of those tools of intellectual life without which recovery is impossible.
Recognizing that UNESCO was created to build the peace starting in the minds of men, it is not unlikely that the founders recognized that building a scientific, rational culture would be a significant step in building a culture of peace.

Harlow Shapley, an American astronomer who attended the June 1945 meeting that created the United Nations and that called for the subsequent meeting to set up UNESCO, suggested that science be included in the UNESCO charter. Later in the November London meeting, the U.S. delegation introduced the resolution to that effect.

Ellen Wilkinson, the UK Minister of Education who chaired the meeting noted:
In these days, when we are all wondering, perhaps apprehensively, what scientists will do to us next, it is important that they should be linked closely with the humanities and should feel that they have a responsibility to mankind for the results of their labor.
She too supported the inclusion of the "S" in UNESCO.

It seems likely that the founders also recognized even in the 1940's that science was a necessary tool for sustainable development. Thus, while initially UNESCO focused on rebuilding the scientific capabilities lost during World War II, two of its first science programs focused on arid lands and the Amazon basin.

Read more about the history of science programs at UNESCO:
* "Looking Back on Science and Engineering in UNESCO: 1946-2004" By Philip W. Hemily in Prospects and Retrospects, Volume 1, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2004, pages 22 and 23.

* Sixty Years of Science at UNESCO 1945-2005, UNESCO, 2006.

* UNESCO: Its Purposes and Philosophy, Julian Huxley, UNESCO, 1945