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The UN's need for advice on how to promote science and use it effectively is stronger than ever. UNESCO might fulfil this role but it needs the determination and human resources to do so.

Deciding on how a government should implement its support of science has never been straightforward. Unlike, say, food production or public health, science cannot easily be contained within the responsibilities of a single ministry since its impacts cover a vast range of government activities.

The UN faces the same dilemma. Technically the responsibility for guiding the role of science within the UN system rests with UNESCO — the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The agency's role in promoting education or defending culture across the world has been relatively easy to define. But its responsibilities for science have proved more difficult.

The latest group to have picked up the challenge is a review committee containing both UNESCO and external experts set up earlier this year by the director-general of agency, Koïchiro Matsuura, at the instigation of a group of member states.

The committee faces two significant challenges. The first is how to find suggestions for strengthening and rationalising UNESCO's own science activities — no easy task in a sprawling bureaucracy that is required to fulfil a range of functions while meeting the diverse needs and expectations of its political paymasters.

The second challenge, no less demanding, is to identify the specific role that UNESCO should play within the UN system as whole, which itself is under strong external pressure for reform.

Both tasks have been made timely by a renewed international commitment to the role of science within the global economic system in general, and in meeting the needs of developing countries in particular.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the committee's initial status report, which will be presented to UNESCO's executive board meeting at the end of this month, has found much to criticise about the current state of affairs (see UNESCO science 'not good enough', says review).

Division and fragmentation

One of the criticisms is that in UNESCO's efforts to meet the needs of a wide group of stakeholders, the agency's support for science has fragmented into a large number of small and relatively isolated projects, often with little clear impact.

There is also fragmentation between disciplines, and between functions. Typically for a large institution — and universities are no exception — discipline-bound activities are, by their nature, easier to manage than those that straddle different fields. But this has opened UNESCO up to the charge that it has failed to build bridges between, for example, the natural and the social sciences — something it is uniquely positioned to do at the international level.

Critics frequently cite other divisions within the organisation. Cooperation between those responsible for promoting science and those with responsibility for higher education is, for example, not as close as it could be. This has implications for the agency's role in promoting the research systems of developing countries, given that universities have a large part to play in meeting this objective.

None of these problems of fragmentation, sometimes verging on rivalry, will surprise those familiar with the workings of large bureaucracies. But it does not mean that they should remain unattended. Hopefully the review committee will come up with a strategy to address the problems. This strategy must indicate how UNESCO can better prioritise its tasks and monitor progress towards achieving them.

Questioning UNESCO's role

But there remain some key strategic questions that go beyond the agency itself. In particular, the UN system as a whole needs to reach a consensus on UNESCO's role and responsibilities — and the limits of such a role.

Hopefully some answers to these questions will be addressed when the conclusions and recommeded strategy and programme of the review committee are presented to member states next year. These conclusions will be integrated into UNESCO's draft medium term strategy, as well as its draft programme and budget, at the executive board next April, and subsequently discussed at the general conference next autumn.

One priority is clear. UNESCO is not — and should not be seen as — a science funding agency. The size of its budget alone precludes this responsibility. At present the agency spends less on science every year than a small university in the United States. This precludes it from implementing even relatively small scientific projects.

In contrast, UNESCO has a major role to play in guiding governments — particularly in the developing world — on how they should spend their money on science. A good example is the agency's recent work in Nigeria, which has led directly to the proposed creation of a National Science Foundation with an endowment of US$5 billion.

A similar need exists within the UN system. At present, no single agency has the task of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the system's support for research overall — including that within technical agencies such as the World Health Organisation. Nor is anyone responsible for generating a strategic vision on, for example, the role of science in Africa. As a result, the UN's scientific activities lack a holistic vision and set of goals.

An agency with this task is not without precedent. In many developed countries, it is not the large ministries that are responsible for developing a strategic vision for science, but relatively small organisations with across-the-board responsibilities and good political connections, often placed close to the president or head of state. The most obvious of these is the US Office of Science and Technology Policy, whose director is also the chief scientific advisor to the US president.

Some have suggested that the UN headquarters in New York, United States, should house a strategy office for science (see UN to set up science advisory mechanism). But this has so far failed to make much progress, partly because of resistance from some technical agencies — who fear, perhaps correctly, that it could impinge on their 'turf' — and partly because no one wants to cover the extra costs of a new science advisory mechanism at the UN headquarters.

But the need still exists. And UNESCO, for all its current weaknesses, could be well-placed to adopt such a role. Its remit would embrace many of the agency's current activities, stretching from issues such as the need to harmonise regulations for science-based technologies, to enhancing the public understanding of science and the better use of scientific evidence in political decision-making.

But before it can fulfil this role effectively, two things need to change.

First, UNESCO's mandate for science should give more focus to strategic issues rather than the implementation of scientific programmes. Sharp questions need to be asked, such as whether UNESCO is the appropriate agency to fund projects in areas such as water technology and hydrology.

The second requirement is that any funds freed up are used to ensure that UNESCO is properly resourced, particularly in terms of appropriately trained staff, to carry out its mandate effectively. All too often, UNESCO's failure has not been in identifying needs, but in its ability to persuade governments in both developed and developing countries to address these needs effectively.

At a time when science is returning to the international development agenda, the need for effective and workable strategic advice, particularly in countries such as those in Africa, is now stronger than ever. It is up to UNESCO, hopefully with guidance from the review committee when it presents its final report next year, to demonstrate whether it has the skills and commitment required to meet the challenge.

David Dickson

Director, SciDev.Net