The United Nations (UN) system has had its share of conferences and programs on the contribution of science and technology to national development. Even the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit) weighed in heavily on science for sustainable development and the 1999 Budapest World Conference on Science set out an ambitious agenda for action.
A recent stock-take on progress since Budapest undertaken by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) concluded that there is still a long way to go in realising the hoped-for new contract between science and society.
This state of affairs recently prompted an unprecedented call to heads of state and government assembled at UN Headquarters in New York in mid-September, from the world’s peak scientific, engineering and medical organisations, for urgent action towards strengthening world-wide capacities in science and technology in support of the Millennium Development Goals set down in the UN Millennium Declaration in 2000 and reinforced at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002
The signatories to the joint statement included the presidents of the ICSU, TWAS, the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences (CAETS) and the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO); along with the co-chairs of the Inter Academy Council and the Inter Academy Medical Panel.
The joint statement by the international non-governmental organisations identifies seven urgent actions needed by national governments and commits the international scientific community to working with governments for their achievement. The joint signatories call for:
- recognition that science, technology and innovation are essential components of effective strategies and programs for reducing poverty and its many associated problems;
- recognition that, to enable developing countries to pursue the evidence-based policies required to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, they will need sound mechanisms and essential infrastructure for applying scientific and technological knowledge to national problem solving;
- recognition that sustainable national structures and strategies are needed to provide and maintain a source of well-trained knowledgeable people;
- help to revitalise universities in countries where the university sector is weak and support for the creation of centres of excellence in science, engineering and medicine;
- fostering of the creation of local enterprises that use scientific knowledge and technology for better meeting the needs of the poor and provision of local infrastructure and services for economic and social growth;
- investment of international funds to support scientific, technological and innovative capacity in developing countries for addressing the Millennium Development Goals; and
- the UN to enhance its institutional capability to address urgent global issues involving science and technology.
While all of these, and the more detailed strategies that support them, can be seen as having elements of “motherhood”, they also represent promising signs of a growing partnership between science and government such as has long existed in some of the specialised areas of international activity like global weather forecasting, climate research and natural disaster mitigation through the programs of the World Meteorological Organization.
Already there are indications that former disciplinary and institutional barriers are breaking down and newer partnerships are developing between the natural and social sciences in contributing to public policy development at the national level.
One of the most important challenges we face is that of using science wisely and objectively to inform public policy. Again there are countless examples of the very positive contribution of science, nationally and internationally, but success is needed across a much wider front and public interest organisations like the learned academies need to play a much stronger role.
As the joint statement underscores, every nation must have a source of independent, credible and timely advice to government policy-makers and the public on critical issues of science and technology; and governments must be able to rely on the commitment of their scientific and technological communities for that support. This is no less a challenge for major economies like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia than it is for the countries of the developing world.
The special challenge for the scientific community is to ensure the objectivity and integrity of their advice; and the special challenge for government is to strengthen bodies like the learned academies in their capacity to provide that advice.
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