Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Suggestions Relevant to the Status of Scientists.

UNESCO has called for advice and comments regarding the revision of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers. The original recommendations date from 1974.

I began to work in international science and technology in 1978, when I transferred to the Office of Science and Technology of USAID -- the U.S foreign assistance agency. I continued to be involved in international science and technology until I retired a few years ago. I met with all of the senior science and technology policy officials in Indonesia in 1978. I was involved in the planning for the UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development in 1979. I worked on major studies of science and technology in Egypt, Ecuador and a less detailed study in Uganda. I was involved in the planning and/or evaluation of major science and technology loans in Egypt, Brazil, Mexico and Uganda. I managed research programs in developing countries from 1981 to 1996. I was at one point the Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology of USAID, and I directed the USAID Office of Research. I was on the OAS Committee on Science and Technology and I was the U.S. Commissioner on the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development. I served as a member of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO for seven years, and have managed Linked In's group "UNESCO's Friends" for six years.

I was therefore surprised that I had never heard of this UNESCO Recommendation. When I read it, I could see why. It is not only turgid in style but it deals with all sorts of things other than "the status of scientific researchers". I don't think that the relevant scientific leadership in UNESCO's member states know of the existence of this recommendation, nor that they would know what to do to implement it if they were made aware of it.

As a first suggestion, I would focus the recommendations on the status of "scientists", not just "scientific researchers".
Status (from the Merriam Webster dictionary): noun 
  • a:  position or rank in relation to others status of a father; b:  relative rank in a hierarchy of prestige; especially:  high prestige
  • the condition of a person or thing in the eyes of the law 
  • state or condition with respect to circumstances
Many scientific activities will be carried out by teams of people, and in general on would expect those teams to be headed by professional scientists -- those with the education, training and experience to fully understand the nature of scientific challenges, methods and work.

A scientist might have legal status in her role as professor or researcher, but probably not in her more general role of "scientist". Thus she might enjoy a legal right to tenure and academic freedom as a professor and have legal responsibilities for the ethical conduct of research as a researcher.

So what is the state or condition of the scientist with respect to circumstances? In some circumstances a scientist serves as:
  • a point of contact with an international scientific community: Thus a scientist should by her training have mastered certain knowledge and skills specific to her science; she should acquire new knowledge and understanding as it is generated by others in her scientific field; she may collaborate on research with other scientists within and outside her country; she may bring relevant scientific issues opportunities specific to her country to the attention of her scientific colleagues abroad; she will be expected to participate in peer review activities.
  • an educator: Thus, a scientists should help prepare others to be scientists; she may create curricula and teach in institutions of higher learning; she may help assure the quality of the science curricula in K-12 schooling; she may take a role in continuing education in the sciences and in the popularization of scientific knowledge.
  • a researcher: We think of the defining character of science as the conduct of scientific research, but not all scientists always are in the process of conducting their own research. Still, she may conduct independent research, or collaborate in the conduct of research with others; she may seek to replicate reported research; she should submit her research for publication in appropriate scientific journals.
  • an organizer of knowledge: Scientists often write text books or other books on their science, organizing bodies of knowledge so that they may be effectively conveyed to others.
  • a problem solver: Scientists are sometimes called upon to apply their scientific knowledge to real world problems. Thus a meteorologist may be asked to apply her scientific knowledge to the development of weather forecasting technology; a geologist to apply her scientific knowledge to the location or description of valuable mineral deposits; a plant scientist to the identification of a crop disease.
What then is the appropriate role for UNESCO in making recommendations on the status of scientists. I suspect that there are few such recommendations. Perhaps the recommendations should focus on governmental and educational institutions, as these are more likely to attend to UNESCO's suggestions.

I suppose that there are some legal implications of these aspects of a scientists status. Thus a scientist might need to have greater access to the Internet and to the importation of foreign literature than would be granted to the general public in some countries. So too, academic scientists (at least in some fields) might perhaps appropriately be granted more time for public service than would faculty in say the humanities.

Scientific ethics require scientists working for government to share their scientific findings with the public, and governments should recognize this fact. While politicians and bureaucrats may regularly have limitations placed on their public statements by their governments, here is special status may well be appropriate for scientists.

I would guess that UNESCO's focus should be on helping small, poor countries to use their relatively few scientists well. In part that means encouraging institutions to emphasize critically important scientific fields in their policies.
  • The portion of GDP that countries spend on research and development increases with the per capita GDP. Small, poor countries thus spend very little on R&D. If they are to meet their needs for research results relevant to their problems, then they probably must depend on their scientists collaborating with those from other countries on such problems. Thus these countries might focus on special recognition of visiting foreign scientists working on collaborative research.
  • Teaching science is important, but if there are few scientists they should be used efficiently in as teachers. Providing them with assistance in the form of teaching assistants and readers (who grade papers) may help. While such assistants may not be common in all fields in higher education, they may be appropriate in the sciences.
  • In small, poor countries, a fairly large portion of scientists may be employed in government agricultural, medical, forestry, fisheries or industrial research institutes. Others may be employed by the government as geologists, hydrologists, meteorologists, and other scientific professions. Again, to maximize the utilization of scientific expertise, such scientists should be provided with assistants to carry out duties that don't require professional scientific knowledge and skill; the scientists should be encouraged to teach and conduct research even if that means adjusting the hours of their government employment. 
In general, I would  suggest UNESCO deviate from its usual policy to produce a short, easily read and understood set of recommendations. If they are to be useful, they might be targeted to a subset of UNESCO member states, and efforts made to provide them to the relevant science policy makers in the governments of those states utilizing UNESCO's country regional missions as well as national commissions.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

I guess I was remiss in not recognizing that the status of "scientist" should not be attributed to someone who does not qualify by education, training and/or experience to be a scientist. While a PhD in a scientific discipline from a recognized institution of graduate education is indicative that a person merits the title, clearly there are others who are very good scientists indeed who do not have a doctorate degree.

Scientists should also ascribe to a code of scientific ethics, specific to science.

I would suggest that it is important that people not be placed in jobs as scientists unless they qualify as scientists and ascribe to a code of scientific ethics. Thus government and faculty positions as scientists should require scientific qualifications.