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Q&A: A catalyst for global science initiatives
  • Q&A: A catalyst for global science initiatives

Copyright: Flickr/International Council for Science

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  • Founded in 1931, ICSU is made up of national and international scientific bodies

  • ICSU’s mission is to strengthen international science for the benefit of society

  • ICSU plays a catalytic role in global programmes such as on climate change

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[AUCKLAND] Steven Wilson is the outgoing executive director of the International Council for Science (ICSU), a non-profit organisation which convened the recent Science Advice to Governments conference in Auckland, New Zealand (27-28 August). SciDev.Net caught up with him during a conference coffee break.
 
Wilson, a trained chemist who previously worked for Britain’s Natural Environmental Research Council, had earlier spoken at the conference about emerging trends and challenges in the global scientific community. In this interview, he elaborates on the role of the ICSU going forward. 
 
What does ICSU do?
 
We are a membership body. Our members are scientific agencies from various countries and international bodies that concentrate on particular areas of science such as chemistry, biology and physics. ICSU brings its members together through a programme of activities that seeks to strengthen international science for the benefit of society — be these about tackling climate change, managing and protecting biodiversity, or finding ways to increase resilience to disasters. These are all areas that we work in. We also work with research programmes and policymakers. And we also work to protect freedoms of scientists, and to help them understand their responsibilities. 
 
We understand that ICSU was instrumental in creating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But ICSU may not be as recognisable to the general public as the IPCC. Is it fair to say that ICSU is the foundation that sprouts all these other institutions that are well known?
 
It’s true that we’re not well known. But we have been around for a long time — since the 1930s. And if you look back, we’ve seeded some enormous scientific initiatives all the way through that period.
 
We take what we call a catalytic role. We get activities going and then we let these fly. When you talk to our scientists and stakeholders, they probably identify better with the initiatives themselves rather than the parent body. Climate scientists would all know about the World Climate Research Programme. People that work on biodiversity would have heard of Diversitas. Anybody working in that area would also know the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which has just been set up and which is like the IPCC but focuses on biodiversity.
 
Generally, our initiatives are better known. We’d like to make a stronger connection back to the parent body.  
 
You mentioned in your conference remarks that ICSU is trying to ensure that stakeholders from developing countries are involved in setting the priorities for research and are actually doing research. What specifically do you do to ensure that happens?
 
We have regional offices that are particularly focused on the developing and least developed countries. We have an office in Pretoria for Africa, an office in Kuala Lumpur for Asia Pacific, and one in Mexico City for Latin America and the Caribbean. We also do tailored activities in the Middle East and North Africa as well as for Europe and North America.
 
Let’s take an example. A programme like Future Earth, a big endeavour on research for sustainability, would be completely meaningless if scientists and stakeholders from least developed and developing countries aren’t involved. For this programme to be successful, it’s a requirement that they’ve got to be involved. We need all the greatest minds, not just a subset. 
 
You also mentioned in your remarks that ICSU is keen to branch out from the “environmental domain” into issues like urban health.
 
Exactly. It’s important that the issues we get into have an international approach. There are some sectors, however, that don’t require it, so there’s no role for us. Environment is a natural issue for us because it generally doesn’t respect national boundaries. But there are other areas where there are basic principles that can be applied across regions and globally. Disaster risk is relatively new for us; urban health is the newest. Nonetheless, our global programmes have to reach down to regional and local levels. Disaster risk is a good example.  
 
Do you see anything coming out of this conference that could be applied to science in the developing world? Do you see any big picture takeaways?
 
I hope a couple of things happen. I hope some general principles do emerge that are useful, particularly for countries that are thinking about establishing a science advisory practice. What can we learn from others? That doesn’t mean that “I’ve got a solution, and here you can take it”. It has to be right for the context it’s going into. But I still think that learning can be valuable.
 
The other thing is that, for ICSU, we hope this conference can serve as the foundation for a longer lived network. Scientists play very important roles nationally in science advice, and having them work together could be very powerful on a global scale.
 
 
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk
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