An independent review of UNESCO's international science programmes says they fail to recognise the interdisciplinary nature of today's major global problems.
The review committee — composed of experts from a range of countries and UNESCO scientists — says UNESCO has too many small and isolated projects with little or no demonstrable impact.
The committee's vice chair, Alec Boksenberg, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, told SciDev.Net he hopes the review spells a new, interdisciplinary direction for the organisation's science programmes.
He says the review will feed into UNESCO's next six-year strategy, which begins in 2007 and will target development in Africa.
The committee will publish its final review next year, but is presenting a status report at UNESCO's 175th executive board meeting, which takes place from 26 September to 12 October.
The status report says that UNESCO is "failing to take advantage of its national commissions, field offices, centres and institutes" to bring the best information from diverse sources to bear on its decisions.
Other criticisms include a lack of transparency on managing and selecting projects; the absence of an "effective communications strategy"; a failure to promote the organisation's science programmes at the grassroots level; and ineffective collaboration with other international science organisations.
Peter Tindemans, of the Euroscience Science Policy Working Group, says most of the problems are to be expected in "an organisation like UNESCO, with almost 200 member states and a very broad mandate".
He says it is unrealistic to expect individual UNESCO's science projects to exemplify leadership because their funding is so much less than projects supported by research agencies and national governments.
But John Daly, a former USAID science official who is now an advisor to the World Bank, told SciDev.Net: "Developing countries need to make the most of their scarce scientific resources. The last thing they need is to have UNESCO leading them down the wrong path."
Carthage Smith, deputy executive director of the International Council for Science, says the issues are to do with the spread of resources, which should be more strategic.
UNESCO's mission as a "promoter and broker of science" includes building capacity in science and technology for sustainable development, and promoting equal access to science and technology, particularly science relevant to developing countries.The panel is still consulting a range of experts and scientific organisations, and will deliver its final report to UNESCO's 176th executive board meeting in April 2007.