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UNESCO's science programmes are facing freezes and cutbacks after the United States halted its funding.

But the extent of the damage is hard to gauge immediately because a large proportion of funding for science programmes is from voluntary contributions from member states outside the general UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) budget, and the United States is the largest contributor to these.

US contributions were frozen because of the vote, at UNESCO's biennial General Conference last week (31 October), to admit Palestine as a member. This has left the agency with an immediate shortfall of US$65 million to the end of 2011 and a 22 per cent drop ­— the proportion of the US contribution — in its US$653 million budget for 2012–2013.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO's director general, told the conference (9 November) that budgets would be frozen until the end of the year and all activities reviewed.

"I have temporarily interrupted certain activities to revise their costs," she said.

She also launched an emergency fund, to which the government of Gabon was the first to announce a donation of US$2 million.

UNESCO officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were already feeling the pinch with all travel suspended, which was particularly affecting regional offices, and with departments unable to sign off any new contracts.

The impact of the freeze on voluntary, or extra-budgetary contributions, which go to programmes through UNESCO, could be large for the natural sciences sector which receives the largest amount of extra-budgetary contributions, often earmarked by member states for particular programmes.

For example, the budget for the science technology and innovation programme, which is around US$10 million for the two years 2010-2011, attracted additional voluntary contributions amounting to US$19 million — or almost double the regular budget — from a variety of countries.

Similarly, the capacity building for sciences programme, which targets Africa, received around US$2.5 million from the regular budget but another US$5.8 million from voluntary contributions.

Bokova said that a programme extending the tsunami early warning system from the Pacific to the Caribbean will be hit.

The programme comes under the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) one of the agency's largest science programmes. However, the IOC also has its own funding and a membership that does not include Palestine, and opinions vary over the seriousness of the likely impact.

"I'm sure a lot of IOC activities are going to be scrutinised and we are just a part of that," said Brian Yanagi, disaster management specialist at the International Tsunami Information Center, in Hawaii, funded by the IOC and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

"All the IOC coordinated groups in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean are looking at what is going to be the impact of the funding [freeze]," he told SciDev.Net.

Lorna Inniss, deputy director of the Coastal Zone Management Unit in Barbados, said the United States had put a significant amount already into development of the warning system in the Caribbean.

But she added that Nicaragua is developing its own early warning capabilities and said: "If we can't get a Caribbean centre we may have to expand the Central American system".

Other science programmes that could suffer setbacks, according to UNESCO officials, include a project on access to freshwater in North Africa — coordinated from Jordan with some US Geological Survey funding — and a mapping programme for geospatial technology in Afghanistan.

Also in jeopardy is a new programme on engineering discussed at the conference this week. "One wonders if they can now justify such an initiative," said John Daly, vice-president of Americans for UNESCO.

But Alec Boksenberg, former chair of the UK Commission for UNESCO and UNESCO Science Committee, said the US freeze was "unfortunate but not a disaster", as the United States was still supporting the agency's work politically, attending meetings and voting. He said that cuts, in the short term, will inevitably be "haphazard".

"It is almost inevitable that programmes will be cut in a haphazard way."  

However, he added that savings could also be achieved through "better housekeeping … It is an opportunity for UNESCO to significantly reshape itself." Earlier this year the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) threatened to pull its funding from UNESCO — around seven per cent of its total budget, unless UNESCO reforms within two years.

Bokova told the conference: "I am well aware that this situation is also an opportunity to accelerate reform [within UNESCO]. I am absolutely ready to completely revise our action, working methods and structures within the secretariat."

See below for a UNESCO video of Irina Bokova's statement on US funding cuts: