Egypt ponders value of ICSU membership

ICSU Egypt SciDev.jpg
Copyright: Brendon O'Hagan/ICSU

Speed read

  • Egypt is assessing the value of staying in the International Council for Science
  • International biology body IUBMB left ICSU partly due to governance worries
  • There is a call for ICSU to host some of its events in developing countries

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[CAIRO] The International Council for Science (ICSU), the body that represents national and international science organisations, has been hit by the exit of one of its members and could now face another departure.

On 1 January, the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB) cancelled its membership of the council. Now SciDev.Net has learned that Egypt’s national science association is also reconsidering the value of its membership.*

“Egypt is currently reconsidering its membership of ICSU through weighing up its benefits and [assessing] the country representation on the different committees.”

Mahmoud Sakr, Academy of Scientific Research & Technology

The news comes at the beginning of a busy year in global development, with ICSU expected to represent the scientific interests of developing nations as climate change talks and negotiations on Sustainable Development Goal reach a climax.

IUBMB general-secretary Michael P. Walsh says the organisation decided to leave ICSU for several reasons, including misgivings over governance. “Our concerns included the lack of transparency regarding nominations and voting mechanisms, and the lack of adequate emphasis on biology in programmes,” he says.

The IUBMB may review its decision. “If progress on the issues of concern to IUBMB is substantial during the coming years, the union would certainly consider rejoining ICSU,” Walsh says.
But ICSU president Gordon McBean rebuffs criticism of the council’s electoral process. Internal committee appointments are made by or through the executive board that is elected at the ICSU General Assembly held every three years. Members are always invited to nominate candidates, he adds.

Egyptian exodus?

In a potential further blow to the council, Mahmoud Sakr, president of Egypt’s Academy of Scientific Research & Technology (ASRT), says: “Egypt is currently reconsidering its membership of ICSU through weighing up its benefits and [assessing] the country representation on the different committees.”

According to Sakr, ICSU must host some of its events and meetings in developing countries, as their scientists may otherwise be unable to attend due to financial constraints.

Maged El-Sherbiny, a former president of ASRT, adds: “ICSU is mainly dominated by developed countries in terms of power and decision-making, and, of course, in terms of strategic directions based on the developed countries’ aspirations.”

In response to concerns about influence and representation within ICSU, McBean says the council endeavours to have committees with membership balanced in terms of disciplines, gender and geography.

El-Sherbiny adds that developing countries often get poor value for money from ICSU membership because limited funding can prevent them participating in council activities and international meetings.

The council has tried to strengthen its impact in the developing world. Between 2005 and 2007, it established three regional offices: for Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean. These aim to link ICSU to countries in these regions, develop regional science plans and build on regional expertise.

McBean, a Canadian, adds that he will be replaced as president in 2017 by Daya Reddy, a South African mathematician. Furthermore, Heide Hackmann, another South African, will become ICSU executive director in March. McBean believes that, as South Africans, these staff will represent the concerns of developing nations.

In 2012, in an effort to boost the financial stability and transparency of its operations, ICSU moved from relying on voluntary contributions to a system where national members pay membership fees on a sliding scale based on their GDP (gross domestic product), while each scientific organisation pays an amount based on its annual income from fees from its own members.

This year, Egypt is due to pay membership fees of €5,573 (around US$6,650).

Last August, an external review of ICSU questioned its clarity of vision. The review, which was carried out by a panel of experts appointed by the council’s executive board, noted that ICSU activities often overlapped with other organisations, including TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) and the InterAcademy Partnership, which brings together global networks of science, medicine and engineering academies. It suggested the council should focus on “articulating a single strong voice for science in global affairs”.

The review also said that the “general public and governments are unaware of ICSU’s stature”.
Yet McBean says: “We are an effective organisation in organising international science. The fact that we are not as visible as we could be has not made us ineffective.”
Link to ICSU’s external review

*This article was edited on 13 January. It originally stated that ASRT may leave ISCU.