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  • Remembering the World Conference on Science


A follow-up report to the 1999 World Conference on Science suffers from some of the same weaknesses as the meeting, but also offers hope for the future.

When the 1999 World Conference on Science (WCS) in Budapest drew to the end of its deliberations, there were mixed feelings about what had been accomplished. There was a general sense among the delegates from more than 150 countries that the meeting — jointly organised by the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Council for Science (ICSU) — had been a useful opportunity to exchange ideas, establish new contacts, set guidelines for moving forward, and sow the seeds of future collaboration. There was less agreement — and considerable dissent — on the significance of the broad-ranging documents agreed at the conference, particularly the rhetoric that hailed it as the start of a new chapter in the relationship between science and society.

Much the same can be said of a report published two weeks ago by UNESCO which seeks to document the impact of the conference on science-related activities in its members states at the national, regional and international level (See Harnessing science to society: follow-up to the World Conference on Science). The document lists an impressive number of initiatives that have been launched by the countries present in Budapest over the past three years. These range from Uganda's decision to establish science facilities in every primary school to the development by New Zealand of "a national innovation system appropriate for a small developed nation, and full participation of indigenous people and women in the scientific and technological enterprise".

But the document suffers from many of the shortcomings of the Budapest meeting itself. Firstly, by describing — somewhat misleadingly — all the projects it lists as 'follow-up' activities to the conference, it fails to place these in a proper context. Many of the initiatives listed were already in the planning stage at the time of WCS, and were the result of commitments made entirely independently of the conference (one can cite among these the development by the European Commission in Brussels of plans for a European Science Area).

In other cases, the principles agreed at the meeting may have been used as one input in the planning process of new projects, but it was far from the most significant. For UNESCO to imply that such projects would not have come into existence without the Budapest conference is — as various members of the executive board are said to have pointed out when the report was discussed last autumn — somewhat disingenuous.

Lack of priorities

A second weakness of the report reflects the fact that not only did no sense of broad political strategy emerge from Budapest — perhaps appropriately, in the light of the failure of previous meetings to set out such a strategy — but neither is there even a sense of relative priorities. The WCS and the two documents that it produced (Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge, and Science Agenda — Framework for Action), provided an à la carte menu of possible initiatives. But there was little guidance on which were the most urgent. The same is true of the follow-up report, which merely provides a list of initiatives that individual countries have submitted to UNESCO, with no comparative assessment, or even any significant categorisation.

The third, related, weakness is the absence of any evaluation of the initiatives that it lists. Admittedly it is far too soon — and perhaps too ambitious — to attempt a formal evaluation of the extent to which individual countries have implemented promises made in Budapest or subsequently. But a more critical stance would not have gone amiss, even from an organisation which is constrained to reproduce, rather than comment on, information received from its members states.

In some cases, 'commitments' quoted as part of a country's follow-up are clearly excessively ambitious. For example, the report quotes one central African country as promising to increase its spending on research and development from 0.02 to 3 per cent of its gross national product — surely some mistake here! In other cases, the report fails to indicate where apparently firm proposals have failed to materialise, such as one put forward by the British government delegation for an international centre for science communication to be based in London.

Positive aspects

At the same time, the report has several useful aspects. For example, there is, thankfully, no talk as there has been previously of the Budapest meeting having laid the basis for a "new social contract" between science and society, an idea which many scientists had leapt on — perhaps seeing a chance of instant redemption in the eyes of a critical public — without asking too closely what such a contract might actually look like in practice, and who was going to enforce it.

Secondly, the report is relatively honest about the lack of input it has received from non-governmental organisations. These are likely to play a critical role in achieving some of the goals outlined in Budapest for promoting broader awareness of the importance of science and technology in the process of international development. And finally any reader of the report is likely to learn of initiatives in this field that had not previously come to his or her attention.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the report is that it highlights how much more needs to be done to address the issues and problems outlined in Budapest. These range from ways of using electronic communication to ease access to scientific information, to increasing the role of women in science and engineering throughout the world. There is no need to describe activities in these areas as "follow-ups" to Budapest. But there is a need to focus the attention of governments in developed and, especially, developing countries on the opportunities and challenges that they face to put the promise of science and technology into practice.

The case for a follow-up meeting

Here the report may have achieved its most important function, namely to lay out a case for a proposed follow-up meeting to the WCS, which would be held in 2004, and is already being referred to as Budapest+5. Such a meeting would represent a formal opportunity for countries to report on what they have (or perhaps, if they are honest, have not) done to implement the principles they signed up to in Budapest.

Although the idea of such a meeting was approved in principle by the UNESCO executive board, it will remain a proposal until support is forthcoming from a sufficient number of the organisation's member governments. But by organising such a follow-up meeting, UNESCO could perform a useful task in providing a genuine attempt to assess progress since Budapest.

That will require a much clearer head than went into much of the planning for WCS, which was far too much of a free-for-all. But it would also be timely, coinciding with a general movement (to which the WCS, whatever criticism is made, has certainly made some contribution) that places science and technology back at the centre of the development agenda. And the documents agreed in Budapest will certainly provide a yardstick against which progress can be measured, something that was noticeably absent at the WCS itself.

© SciDev.Net 2003

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