Friday, August 12, 2011

Editorial: The Importance of UNESCO's Social Science Program is not Recognized

The August 5th issue of Science magazine has an editorial by Kenneth Prewitt, the President of the Consortium of Social Science Associations. It begins:
Last month, a U.S. congressional committee wisely decided not to cut funding of social science research by the National Science Foundation (NSF), despite an attack that cleverly framed the discipline as “good, just not good enough for NSF.” This claim was rebutted across the political spectrum, by physical and biological as well as social scientists, and in the business sector.
UNESCO has both a natural science program and a social and human science program. Americans would, I suppose, tend to assume that the latter program included psychology and cognitive science as "human science" in addition to the social sciences such as anthropology, economics, political science and sociology. In fact, the program has a broadly conceived effort in the social sciences studying social transitions, but also emphasizes programs focusing on the ethics of science and technology, human rights and sport. (UNESCO once had a broader interest in history as a discipline, but currently is focusing on African history and that of the Slave Trade; these efforts are managed within the Culture Sector of the Organization.)

Of course, I strongly support UNESCO's programs in the natural sciences. I continue to be surprised and concerned that UNESCO which is the flagship organization of the UN system for education and communications does not have a strong program in psychology nor in cognitive science. But, this post is focused on the social sciences per se.

UNESCO as a whole is strongly focused on promotion of peace (and a culture of peace), on sustainable development especially of the least developed countries, Africa and small island states, on gender equality, with concerns for HIV/AIDS, for policy making and for foresight and anticipation. All of these areas depend on a strong basis of knowledge and understanding from the social sciences for effective action. More importantly, UNESCO is the logical place in the UN system for the lead in the promotion of social science capacity building, especially in developing nations, and for the linkage of social science knowledge and understanding in national policy making and institution building. Moreover, UNESCO has an ability as a neutral agent to communicate knowledge from the social sciences and to strengthen social science capacities that complements that of bilateral donors and international financial institutions. Yet the resources devoted by the Organization to social sciences are tiny, especially as compared to the challenges faced by the program and the member nations of UNESCO.

Of course, there has been a long term concern related to the efficiency and effectiveness of UNESCO. In part, the concern is based on the fact that UNESCO has so many responsibilities and so few resources that it is all but impossible to carry out all its programs well. It would be fatuous to propose increasing funding for UNESCO's social science program without increasing staffing for the program, and unrealistic to suggest increasing that staffing by diverting staff positions from other, often successful programs that are also challenged as they try to do a great deal with a few people.

Still, as UNESCO makes progress in strengthening management and improving effectiveness and efficiency, I would strongly suggest it recognize the importance of the social sciences to its mission and strengthen its social science resources and program.

John Daly
The opinions in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for UNESCO.

Photos from the Facebook UNESCO Albumon the occasion of the Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

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