Friday, February 20, 2009

A Comment on the Natural Science Program of UNESCO

Frank Method and I are coordinating a graduate seminar at George Washington University titled "UNESCO: Agenda for the 21st Century". Last night one of the students presented an overview of UNESCO's natural science program and led a discussion of that program.

Her presentation showed the complexity of UNESCO's natural science activities with
There are also some 200 UNESCO university chairs in the natural sciences, as well as 22 Category 2 UNESCO science centers. These Category 2 centers are do not depend on UNESCO for funding and separate governance mechanisms. UNESCO also influences the global natural science community via programs and activities managed by its
  • 27 cluster offices covering 148 member states,
  • 21 national offices (each serving a single member state),
  • 10 regional bureaus (5 of which -- Nairobi, Cairo, Jakarta, Venice and Montevideo -- are for sciences),
  • and liaison offices in Geneva an New York.
UNESCO can reach out to the scientific community through its linkages with 350 NGOs (including key professional associations in science and engineering), partnerships with the private sector, thousands of UNESCO clubs and Associate Schools, and through the National Commissions for UNESCO in each of its 193 member states.

The UNESCO natural science program publishes many books and a few journals, publishes The World Science Report, and holds occasional global meetings on aspects of science policy. It has promoted global networking through such efforts as its global network of biosphere reserves. It has raised global awareness of the importance of natural sciences in social and economic development.

There are significant problems in understanding the impact of the natural science program. Hydrology can be used as an example. Many people do not recognize the importance of Hydrology and the impact it has on their lives. However, in a world facing future water shortages in many places, understanding the magnitude of water resources and the ways in which those resources may be managed will have increasing economic value, and indeed may help to maintain peace. Hydrology informs road and railroad builders as to how to protect their constructions from washing out. It informs urban planners as to how to plan flood-safe neighborhoods. It informs agricultural planners about beneficial and dangerous water conditions. UNESCO's work has encouraged the development of hydrology and trained many people in the science. The benefits of that work however comes in the improvements in works based on the application of the science, often by the people trained by those trained by UNESCO direct beneficiaries, and often only realized by losses averted long after the hydrological research.

Another example illustrates both the difficulty in estimating the value of the program and its importance. UNESCO helped catalyze the development of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which not only has helped revolutionize man's understanding of the nature of matter, but provided employment for Tim Berners-Lee while he developed the technology which underlies the World Wide Web. It would be impossible to evaluate the value of the World Wide Web and it would be equally impossible to decide how much of that value to attribute to UNESCO's influence, yet my intuition suggests that even a few such huge successes can justify all of UNESCO's budget.

The United States' scientific community has been very influential in the development of this program, and several of its components resulted from U.S. initiatives. On the other hand, parts of the program such as Man and the Biosphere have been politically controversial in this country, and of course the precipitous departure of the United States from UNESCO and its 19 year absense had a deleterious affect on this as well as other UNESCO programs. (However, the U.S. scientific community continued its involvement during the hiatus, and the U.S. Government not only continued to observe the program but also provided funding for some of the U.S. scientific cooperation with UNESCO during the two decade absence.)

The discussion in class focused on the fact that this complex program is the result of a six-decade long process by which activities have been added to the Natural Science program by the General Conference of UNESCO acceding to the initiatives of member states and the general political climate of the time, as well as to the mandate of UNESCO. Were one to begin anew at this moment, with UNESCO's mission and budget in mind, one might well develop a different portfolio of activities.

We also discussed the decentralization of the program governance. In part this may be a response to the need to have science programs governed by peer scientists with profound knowledge and understanding of the specific scientific issues before them. In part, the introduction of many different governing bodies within the same program may be due to donors seeking to control the way that their funds are spent, rather than leave that control to the 193 member nation General Conference. It was noted that the natural science budget of UNESCO is primarily funded through voluntary contributions rather than from the regular budget derived from the assessed contributions of the member states.

The budget of the Natural Science Program is miniscule as compared with global spending on the natural sciences, even when all the extrabudgetary resources are considered. Moreover, the control over those resources is very fragmented and decentralized. The fundamental question that was addressed was whether this approach resulted in effectiveness as UNESCO seeks to promote natural sciences globally and to promote the use of the natural sciences to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men.

It was suggested that the parsimonious budget has benefits in forcing the secretariat to network and work through partnerships, while it was also suggested that a larger budget might be appropriate for the program.

The recent review of UNESCO's science program called for more central planning and management as well as more coordination among natural science subprograms and with the social and human science program. It was suggested in our seminar discussion that a large degree of decentralization of decision making for such a program is very desirable; however, there probably should be more central coordination of the very peripheral elements such as the Category 2 centers.

The seminar with eight students and two coordinators small enough to allow strong participation, and the discussion seemed to be both vigorous and interested.

More about the class...

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