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A non-governmental association of science said to be the world’s largest was officially inaugurated in Paris this week (5 July), with the new president pledging to engage least developed nations as a part of its agenda.

The International Science Council will provide a “unified global voice of science”, said Daya Reddy, the council’s newly elected president and South African research chair in computational mechanics at the University of Cape Town. It was formed by a merger of the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council, after a strategic review called for a stronger and more unified entity.

“The council has a unique power and ability to mobilise communities of scientists to solve major problems,” said Reddy. “It will stimulate research, communicate scientific knowledge in the public domain, and defend free practice of science.”

“Thirty per cent of the countries, mostly in the developing world, are still not represented [in the council],”

Daya Reddy

He believes that in order to do so, the council will need to do more to reach and work with marginalised regions affected by global problems, be it climate change, poverty or the rise in anti-science sentiments.

“Thirty per cent of the countries, mostly in the developing world, are still not represented [in the council],” he said, adding that as a concrete step to encourage more regions to participate, the council will revisit its fees structure to reduce financial barriers to membership.

The new global club brings together some 40 international scientific unions and associations, and more than 140 national and regional organisations such as academies and research councils.  It aims to be the global voice of science, and to lead on coordinating action on issues that affect the public. A special focus will be working on getting science into policy, and defending free and independent research globally.

Discussions at the launch revealed different ideas of what the council should be focusing on.  In a panel of four young scientists Tolullah Oni, a South African based at the University of Cambridge in the UK, called on it to make science more equitable and responsive to the needs of marginalised communities.

And Herbert Docena, a sociology researcher from the University of the Philippines Diliman, highlighted the plight of independent and outspoken scientists in authoritarian regimes. It’s not unusual for them to face jail time, he said, calling on the council to set up a fund to help with legal fees, but also to study the reasons behind these trends.

Docena said he worries about ending up in jail for being a critic of an increasingly authoritarian government in the Philippines, and for standing up for human rights. He sees this danger for many outspoken scientists in other parts of the world that have ushered in governments which are “not exactly fond of human rights and critical scientists”.

“In many, many countries this is becoming a very difficult problem,” he said. “How will ISC deal with that given its mission to defend free and responsible science? How do we pool resources to help scientists with legal fees when being jailed?”

Another challenge the council should tackle, Docena said, includes brain drain — both international, from poorer to developed countries, and national, from rural communities into cities. These movements make research more remote to the needs of local communities.

The dearth of research bodies from developing countries represented within the new council was also highlighted by Carolina Adler, a Chilean who works with the Mountain Research Initiative based in Switzerland. But she said immigrant scientists like herself can collaborate with researchers back home and help improve the situation.

“I worry about lack of funding for science, difficulty of accessing journals … things that make it harder to be a scientist in developing countries,” Docena added. “ISC should seek policy solutions to address these issues, e.g. publishing monopolies that keep journals behind pay barriers.”

The council’s new leadership is confident that it can play an important and prestigious role to champion science globally, but others at the meeting worried about how it will be perceived outside of its own academic circles.

“From the outside, no one knows who they are,” one delegate from the University of Cambridge, in the UK, told SciDev.Net on condition of anonymity. Everyone knows what the International Olympic Committee and FIFA are and what they do — but there are many different international science bodies, he said, and their goals are not always clear. Even some insiders worry about this. According to Jia Gensuo, the council’s Asia representative from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the new name and logo doesn’t easily convey what the new council is about — he says it lacks the long history and recognition of the two bodies that merged to form it: the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council.

Jia was also surprised that few media were present at the launch. But he says he is is confident about the council’s strategy to fulfil its mission.

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