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The United Nations could benefit from improved science advice, at all levels. But it also needs to explore new models of the relationship between science and power.

When entering new and relatively unfamiliar territory, a guide offering information on the landmarks and obstacles likely to be encountered en route can be invaluable. But any guide that seeks to be excessively prescriptive can be counterproductive, imposing a mental strait-jacket where a more imaginative approach would be of greater value.

So it is with science advice. We live in a world in which an increasing number of subjects addressed by policy-makers — from the regulation of genetically modified (GM) crops to the detection of biological weapons — involve the application of some form of scientific knowledge. In such a world, policy-makers who have access to reliable knowledge are in a position to make better decisions than those who are not.

A report just published by the US National Academy of Sciences, 'Knowledge and Diplomacy: Science Advice in the United Nations System' draws timely attention to the fact that one set of institutions to which this applies is the family of intergovernmental agencies that make up the United Nations. The report makes a strong and lucid case for strengthening the science advice procedures within these agencies, arguing convincingly that if they fail to do so, such agencies — in fact the entire UN system — risk losing both effectiveness and credibility.

But if there is a weakness in the report, it is the relative lack of attention given to the murky territory between science and politics, in which many of the providers and recipients of science advice tend to operate. In some cases, such as whether chlorofluorocarbons are destroying the ozone layer, it is possible to give a clear 'scientific' answer. In others, however, such as whether GM crops are harmful to the environment, not only is such a question impossible to answer in strictly scientific terms, but any attempt to do so can legitimately be criticised as attempting to avoid the social and cultural judgements that answering such a question requires.

Integrating knowledge into policy

This is not to weaken the central message of the report, namely that a general enhancement of the mechanisms by which information about science become integrated into the policy machinery of UN agencies can only increase their overall effectiveness. Whether addressing issues ranging from fisheries management to the use of geographical information systems to plan farming strategies, the more policies are knowledge-based — and the higher the quality of this knowledge — the more likely they are to succeed.

The report, which was written by a small panel of experts chaired by Robert A Frosch of Harvard University, a former director of the US space agency NASA, points out areas where this has worked well. One is global warming, where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is widely seen as a paragon of the way that an independent scientific consensus can play a significant role in persuading governments to adopt policies to meet a key issue of social concern.

It also points out areas that have been less successful. For example, it argues that the activities of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel set up to provide science advise to the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), has been "overshadowed" by the agencies responsible for implementing GEF-funded programmes, as well as the GEF secretariat itself. Similarly it criticises the Commission on Sustainable Development for neglecting efforts to use scientific inputs to monitor the implementation of Agenda 21, the action agenda draw up at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

Need for good practice

The report's insistence that each separate UN agency should have an effective way of handling the interface between the science and the politics of the issues that they cover — and not leave these issues to the political lobbying that can accompany what it describes as "conference diplomacy" — is welcome. So too is its recommendation that these mechanisms should follow common procedures based on accepted good practice. And the recognition that public confidence in any scientific advisory process can only be secured if there is a commitment to transparency and if potential conflicts of interest are openly addressed (particularly where commercially-related issues are at stake).

A related recommendation, less often heard but equally significant, is the need to make extra efforts to establish the legitimacy of such mechanisms in the eyes of the developing world. This cannot be done — at least not if global legitimacy is to be maintained as well — by window dressing or token appointments. It requires a solid commitment to building up the scientific capacity of developing countries in a way that enables them to put forward their own high-level scientific experts on the issues being addressed.

This recommendation has an important implication. Namely, that an effective and trustworthy system of science advice must be built from the ground up. Any attempt to 'parachute in' scientific experts will only generate its own suspicions, particularly in circumstances where it is impossible to draw a clear line between those judgements that are strictly scientific, and those in which non-scientific criteria may intrude. It is one thing, for example, to ask scientists to describe the potential contributions of research using human embryos to future medical treatment; it is another to ask these same scientists whether such research should be allowed to go ahead, given the moral dilemmas that it can create.

Additional mechanisms

The political requirement here, however, is different from that which the academy report assigns, in a relatively traditional way, to a science adviser. What is required is a set of mechanisms and practices that ensure not only that information about the scientific aspect of key issues is fully communicated to decision-makers — but also that this is put into appropriate social and cultural perspective.

Various ways for doing this have been experimented with in the developed world over the past 30 years or so. One of the most successful, for example, was the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), set up partly to inject a more democratic debate into the political handling of science- and technology-related issues. Indeed the OTA's success in rocking the establishment boat on such issues (for example on US plans for missile defence) is widely seen as a contributory factor to its demise in 1995 at the hands of a cost-cutting Republican Congress.

Facilitating access to authoritative scientific knowledge, at all levels of the decision-making process, is an important task. Enhancing the capacity of developing nations to participate in this process is an essential element in promoting their sustainable development.

But when it comes to their role in political decision-making, within the UN system as within national governments, science advisers should — like scientists — be "on tap and not on top". Decisions must be informed, not dictated, by science; and this process of informing must not be restricted to top decision-makers, but distributed throughout the political system. Strengthening the position of science advisers is a step in this direction. But other developments — including effective mechanisms (such as technology assessment offices) for incorporating a wide range of non-scientific expertise into the decision-making process, as well as enhanced public channels for communication of information about science — are equally necessary.

© SciDev.Net 2002

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