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  • Q&A: Gretchen Kalonji on UNESCO's plans for science


SciDev.Net speaks to UNESCO's Gretchen Kalonji about how a new panel of experts is breathing fresh life into the organisation's science plans.

The first ever High Panel on Science for Development, tasked with strengthening the efforts of UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in science, technology and innovation (STI), held its inaugural meeting in France earlier this month (15–16 September).

The panel of eminent personalities — including former Pakistan science minister, Atta-ur-Rahman, and Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences — will meet twice a year. Its first report, based on September's meeting, will be released in a few weeks.

SciDev.Net spoke to Gretchen Kalonji, UNESCO assistant director-general for natural sciences, after the meeting to discuss the formation of the panel, how it will put its recommendations into practice, and its plans for shaping science and innovation in the developing world, particularly Africa.

What was behind the decision to set up the panel and what will it lead to?

UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova has brought together an extraordinarily talented group of people, hoping to get a high-level vision of emerging trends in international science and engineering.

We also want to build on the experiences these people bring to the table from various regions of the world, and various disciplines and sectors of society, to understand how UNESCO can more effectively target science and engineering to sustainable development — particularly the large-scale challenges facing society — and poverty eradication.

How is that different from the thinking that drives current UNESCO science projects?

These kinds of individuals can give us their thoughts — particularly on what is working well — on new scientific models and on building large-scale interdisciplinary partnerships. We are looking at questions like: how does one integrate the science and engineering education agenda with a collaborative research agenda? What are the models the panel has observed for collaborative North–South and South–South partnerships? What kind of role is UNESCO best poised to play?

Did any particularly striking ideas come out of the meeting?

The disappearing boundaries between the various branches of science and engineering, and the importance of integrating with social science from the very beginning of project design.

In terms of emerging developments in science, we also discussed the topic of data-intensive science — also known as the fourth paradigm.

The first paradigm was empirical science, which has been around for time immemorial, followed by theoretical science, then moving into computer simulations. Now science is interrogating huge datasets to uncover truths. This new paradigm requires fascinating cultural and epistemological changes in science.

Atta-ur-Rahman by ARY-News-Pakistan

The panel includes former Pakistan science minister Atta-ur-Rahman

ARY News Pakistan

UNESCO does a lot of capacity-building in the developing world so it is important that we stay on top of things as they are evolving to help our member states, and stay ahead of the curve as science rapidly changes.

You have mentioned in the past the importance of disaster research, did that figure in the discussion?

Natural disasters and climate change both featured quite heavily in the discussion. I gave the panel an overview of some of the cross-cutting thematic initiatives we are working on, including in natural disasters. We have been strengthening our work, particularly in water-related disasters such as floods and droughts, since I joined [in July 2010]. Disaster research is a priority area for us, as is biodiversity, and we also have a new UNESCO engineering initiative.

What kind of initiative is this?

We are trying to strengthen engineering at UNESCO by focusing on collaborations with universities and by enhancing research capacity.

Engineering is a strategic priority for us. Over the decades, the attention we have paid to it has fluctuated. The member states, particularly from the developing world — and particularly from Africa — have called on us to focus on engineering more.

We are focusing on engineering education, and science education more broadly. We have a lot of advantages because we have education, natural sciences and social sciences all under one institution.

I want to further strengthen our work on science and engineering curricula. For example, we have partnerships with CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research] on secondary school physics education and digital libraries, and with Nature Publishing Group on open access at the undergraduate level for curricular materials, initially in the biological sciences.

Without pre-empting the content of the panel's recommendations, how will they be funded?

A lot of the activities are included in our biennial financial plans which are going to our governing bodies in the next few months.

We are also quite successful in raising extra-budgetary contributions. Those might be additional voluntary contributions from member states, or from industrial partners, foundations, and so on.

We need additional support to strengthen and expand into new areas. There is a lot that we can do within our regular budget but the extra-budgetary support is really important.

Which parts of the developing world will be the highest priority?

Africa is our highest regional priority. For example, we have a strong focus on Africa in our International Hydrological Programme. In the past year we have worked with member states to catalyse a number of new interdisciplinary research centres in this area. For example there is one on rainwater harvesting in Sudan and one on groundwater resources in Kenya, both of which will join a networked family of UNESCO-affiliated centres around the world.

Kenyan schoolchildren by Flickr/sharonpe

UNESCO is focusing more on science education


The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has also strengthened its activities in Africa, including work on coastal issues and creating a new staff position in Nairobi. And the Man and the Biosphere Programme has enhanced its focus on the biosphere reserves on the continent.

What do you see as the main obstacle in persuading African countries to support science, particularly interdisciplinary science?

The member states are supportive in general of our interdisciplinary work. With respect to Africa we have already done a lot of work on flood-related issues, both in Benin and on the recent floods in Namibia. Capacity building in science and engineering is something that member states see as vitally important for Africa's sustainable development and economic growth.

How can they get, for example, ministries of finance to back these projects?

That is a good question. We have very close relationships with ministries of science and technology, and with water ministries because water is one of our great strengths. We recognise the need for the rest of government, and particularly for finance ministries, to better understand the importance to the economy of funding science, so we are increasingly trying to organise events, for example, where finance ministries can be involved. It is also important to get the word out to parliamentary science committees.

We have been working together with the African Union as our primary partner, and also the African Development Bank and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, on organising a large-scale conference on STI for Africa.

This is designed to bring people together from various ministries — plus the private sector and academics — to discuss comprehensive strategic approaches to strengthening science and engineering approaches for development in Africa. And the basic point would be to link up the finance ministries with the development ministries.

Where do you see the change of emphasis since you and the new director-general arrived?

More effectively taking advantage of UNESCO's strategic advantages, I would say. The organisation, like many other large organisations, has a lot of silo-isation [everyone doing their own thing], so trying to work more effectively across the domains in UNESCO is important. Within the science sector, our big focus is on working among our various divisions and units.

Link to list of attendees at the September 2011 meeting [40kB]

Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
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