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A group of international scientific organisations is planning to create a formal partnership to promote research on global issues relevant to sustainable development.

Formal proposals for this partnership will be submitted for approval to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which takes place in Johannesburg at the end of August.

Those involved will include organisations such as the International Council for Science (ICSU), the Third World Academy of Sciences, and the Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability, an international project, administered from Harvard University, intended to enhance the contribution of knowledge to environmentally-sustainable human development.

The partnership will, in particular, focus on the need to integrate a local, community-based perspective into research programmes in areas such as climate change that have in the past been pursued primarily at a global level.

United Nations officials organising the WSSD are keen to promote a wide range of partnership agreements as concrete steps towards achieving sustainable development, already aware that, in the absence of any major political agreements, this is likely to be the most concrete outcome of the Johannesburg meeting.

The proposal to endorse one such partnership between international scientific organisations was approved in Mexico City last week at a meeting held to draw together the conclusions of a series of regional workshops held over the past two years on the potential contributions of science and technology to sustainable development.

“We are delighted that the hard work over the past two years has resulted in a synthesis which is an excellent platform for the development of a strong science and technology commitment for action post-Johannesburg,” says Thomas Rosswall, the executive director of ICSU.

Rosswall says that he expects other stakeholders to become involved in the partnership, in addition to those present in Mexico City. “We are exploring new grounds in developing science and technology activities of key relevance to society, and such challenges are always exciting”.

The full details of the proposed partnership will be announced during the 4th Preparatory Committee for the WSSD, which opened in Bali, Indonesia, this week. It will be based on a number of principles that were agreed at the Mexico City meeting and are being presented to UN officials in Bali.

One of these principles is that the science and technology community will accept its responsibility to address, through research and technological innovation, the three pillars of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental sustainability — in a holistic and integrated manner.

It was also agreed that integrating these three areas will require focussing on the interactions and interdependencies between social and natural systems. Furthermore, those attending the meeting agreed that efforts will be focussed on the local and regional scales, and studies will be ‘place-based’.

And the group agreed that, in this process, major stakeholders — namely those most likely to be affected by the outcomes of the research — will be involved in both the agenda-setting and dissemination of results, the latter aimed at providing solutions to key issues of importance for the implementations of sustainable development.

Finally the group of representatives which presented their conclusions to Mexican President Vicente Fox at the end of the meeting, agreed that “a new contract between science, society and sustainable development is called for”.

Other organisations involved in the partnership to be presented in Bali include the World Federation of Engineering Organisations — which has been responsible with ICSU for drawing together the views of the scientific and technological community for submission to the WSSD — the InterAcademy Panel, Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD), and the Global Change Research Programme.

“One of the most important conclusions that has emerged from the series of regional meetings is the consensus that a large fraction of the research needed to promote science and technology for sustainable development will take place at local scales, i.e. below the regional or even national scale,” says Bill Clark, professor of international science, public policy and human development at Harvard University.

“When we went into this process, we thought we would come out with a set of differentiated regional needs, listing the most important needs in, for example, Africa or Asia,” says Clarke. “But the people we consulted told us that that was the wrong scale.

“What came out of the regional workshops was the realisation that the defining scale was much smaller than that, and that research projects require local-scale negotiations between stakeholders and researchers.

“That is not to say that the research itself must be carried out locally. The challenge, however, is to relate what happens at a local scale to effects at the regional and global scales. Trying to understand the cross-scale nature of these issues poses some very tough challenges for harnessing science and technology to sustainability.”

Clarke says that those who attended last week’s meeting in Mexico City “left feeling really excited that we have managed to unite a top-down perspective with a ground-based approach. We have not come out with two radically different perspectives, but with one that is strengthened by combining the two. The new game in town is cross-scale sensitivity.”

© SciDev.Net 2002

See also

Draft Summary of Workshop Conclusions
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