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In October Lidia Brito, Mozambique's ex-science minister and a forestry researcher from the country's Eduardo Mondlane University, was appointed as head of the science policy division at UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

She took up the post on 1 December, taking over from Mustafa El Tayeb, who has led UNESCO's science policy work since 1996.

Brito's experience helping to write and implement successful science policies in Mozambique has ensured she is a popular choice for the post, particularly as she will be working with countries across the continent to develop their own science policies. Here she speaks to Linda Nordling about her plans.

In the past, people have complained that the "s" in UNESCO seemed to be a silent one — that science has taken the back seat to education and culture in the organisation. Is this changing?

Science policy is becoming a big priority for national governments, and also for UNESCO. We have increased our budget for this and we hope to continue in that way. There is a lot of demand for this service in member states and we need more capacity to deliver a good product.

Having said that, we do need to do more to increase the visibility of science in UNESCO. But I think that's the mood that the organisation is in. If you look at our new director general's [Irina Bokova's] speeches, you will see that she has mentioned science as a very important part of UNESCO's work. So there is a niche for science in the UN system.

Of course, we have several challenges — for example, we need to strengthen our partnerships within the UN system and also with other organisations. There are already links, but we need to use them better. We are saying that 2010 is the 'partnership year' for us. We will increase and strengthen the partnerships we have. But we also have some competitive advantages that we should explore more.

Such as?

Our wide-ranging experience in-house, the power to convene, organise and promoting multi-stakeholder dialogues about science for development, science for peace, for the betterment of society… These are very important characteristics of UNESCO that give us an edge.

What, in your opinion, are the biggest barriers to creating good science policies in developing countries, and how are they best overcome?

One key challenge is capacity. Any public policy should have strong national ownership and you need capacity for that. That is why most of our programmes in UNESCO focus on capacity building so that governments can have a strong national team.

Another issue is making sure science policy cuts across all relevant sectors of government. Good science policies create a basis for improving other policies and implementing them with more relevance and effectiveness. Science policies should extend to the media so that the general public can start making informed decisions based on science know-how.

Finally, there's a lesson that I learned in Mozambique, and that is that when you start designing your science policies you should start budgeting for some pilot activities straight away. That way, you mobilise actors who will have to get involved anyway when you move into implementation. It's also a way of creating awareness of, and buy-in for, the policy.

UNESCO helps countries draw up their science policies, but it has little money to help countries implement them. How can you make sure policies do not just remain words on paper, but are translated into action?

We have a good example in Tanzania. The government has led a process, supported by UNESCO, to mobilise resources from other actors so it can start implementing its policy [see Science R&D enjoys a windfall in Tanzania].

Political will is very important in this context. Of course, this is the case with any public policy. But I think that in the case of science policies it's even more important because these are structural policies that need to cut across government.

What are your other priorities for science policy activities at UNESCO?

We want to integrate our work better with the other arms of UNESCO. One priority is to work more closely with the social science programmes but we also need to work more with education, with communication and information.

We will also try to build capacity in a less traditional way. For example, we are looking at whether we can use our virtual campus programmes to deliver more training on science policy.

Science communication is another thing we feel we need to invest more resources in. This is very important for monitoring policies and their impact.

So in short, it is early days and I need a bit more time to make all these plans concrete.

What about new programmes?

There are many fresh ideas. We are discussing whether we can do more around the World Science Day. Can it become a real trigger for science for development? Can we make the celebration of this day a process that really moves and mobilises the different actors?

We are also discussing possibilities for extending our programmes on the history of science. We have done it for the Arab states, but now we are also seeing if we can get China involved, and maybe extend activities to Africa and Latin America.

Another idea is to create virtual science museums in the way that the culture section at UNESCO has done for regular artefacts. But most of these ideas still need to be discussed and go through a design process. We are brainstorming at this point!

Lidia Brito is a SciDev.Net trustee