UNESCO must reclaim science leadership
Will UNESCO's likely new head have the vision to deliver much-needed change in the organisation — especially in its science programmes?
It is too early to say whether the bitterly fought contest to become the new director-general of UNESCO will have a lasting impact on the organisation.
The battle ended earlier this week (22 September) after five rounds of voting, with victory for Irina Bokova, Bulgaria's ambassador to France.
If her appointment is confirmed by the organisation's general assembly next month, one of Bokova's first tasks will be to build bridges with the governments that supported her rival in the final round, Farouq Hosni, Egypt's culture minister.
Many of Hosni's supporters are in Asia and Africa — they will be disappointed that remarks he made in the past may have cost him the race, as they were perceived as anti-semitic by some in the West. This will need careful attention, as UNESCO should be playing a key role in bridging the cultural divide of an increasingly polarised world.
The science challenge
But Bokova's broader challenge will be to give new purpose and coherence to UNESCO. Too often, internal and external political wrangling has undermined its effectiveness and prevented the agency from achieving its full potential.
Nowhere has this been more true than in its science programmes, which did not figure prominently in the election. The only candidate who emphasised science in his campaign — Sospeter Muhongo from Tanzania — received just one vote in the first round and promptly dropped out, apparently in favour of Hosni.
And while Bokova stressed the importance of education and meeting the needs of Africa in her campaign, she said virtually nothing about science.
Nevertheless, promoting science and integrating it into development strategies — particularly through science education — rightly remains an important priority for the organisation.
The problem is that UNESCO's efforts to meet a wide set of goals — partly a reflection of the diverse agendas of its member states — combined with thinly-stretched financial resources, has led to damaging fragmentation in its science programmes. This was pointed out by an external review committee in 2007 (see UNESCO science 'not good enough', says review).
Bringing resources to bear
Little has changed since the review committee delivered its recommendations. The need to address fragmentation with greater focus and a new sense of purpose remains as acute today as it was two years ago.
Next month's general assembly offers an opportunity to put much needed changes into effect. One welcome suggestion is to increase UNESCO's support for building capacity in developing countries — particularly in Africa — to create sustainable science policies (even if this has yet to be translated into concrete proposals for the next programme and budget).
But the organisation has long had ambitious goals to support science in this way. The problem has been a lack of resources, so efforts have too often led to little more than cosmetic changes.
Other proposals that will be put to the conference for streamlining science programmes are relatively modest, leading to fears among many of the larger delegations that the future will only bring 'more of the same'.
A mandate for change
Real change in science programmes, as elsewhere within the agency, will require strong and visionary leadership.
The good news from this week's election is that the final ballot, in which Bokova beat Hosni by 31 votes to 27, provided a clear outcome. A stalemate at this stage — each candidate had secured 29 votes in the previous round — could easily have undermined the authority of the eventual winner.
Less satisfactory is that, to secure her victory, Bokova is likely to have made serious commitments to those governments who eventually voted for her (she visited 45 countries in her campaign).
Accommodating these promises in a coherent and focused reform agenda will be a challenging task — but an essential one if UNESCO is to reclaim its leadership position in science and technology for development.