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Prospects for the revitalisation of the International Council for Science (ICSU), the body that seeks to provide an international voice for the scientific community, have been enhanced by the appointment of experienced research administrators to its top two executive positions.

Thomas Rosswall, founding director of the International Geosphere Biosphere programme (IGBP), and currently director of the Stockholm-based International Foundation for Science, is to take on the post of executive director from 1 January next year.

A microbiologist and soil ecologist by training, Rosswall was rector of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences from 1994 to 2000. He will succeed Larry Kohler, who has been on leave of absence from the International Labour Office in Geneva for the past two years, and is returning to his previous employer.

Supporting Rosswall will be a new deputy executive director, Carthage Smith, a neuroscientist who has headed the international section of Britain's Medical Research Council since 1999.

The International Council for Science, founded in 1931, was formerly known as the International Council of Scientific Unions — still retaining its original acronym — and currently brings together 98 multi-disciplinary national scientific academies and 26 international single discipline scientific unions.

Rosswall’s appointment comes at a critical time. Responding to charges from some of its members in recent years of insufficient effectiveness and a lack of clear focus in its activities, ICSU has recently been seeking ways to increase its impact on the international scientific scene.

Several of the changes suggested by a review carried out in the mid-1990s, however, and subsequently endorsed by the organisation’s executive board, are yet to be fully implemented.

“Rosswall's appointment is a tremendous relief,” says Kohler. "I was very worried that it would be difficult to find someone to take on the task facing the organisation, but Rosswall is a reformer, and reform is what is needed."

Rosswall says that, with the scientific community facing many challenges, “it is important to have a credible organisation that can speak for the international community of scientists”.

He adds that ICSU “has an excellent track record in bridging the gap between the science community and the political arenas,” and a “remarkable scientific network” through its national member academies, scientific unions and interdisciplinary committees.

However he adds that the organisation must strengthen its links to science communities in developing countries. “Only through collaboration and understanding of different political, social, cultural and religious systems can we believe in a peaceful world for all,“ he says.

Rosswall has had considerable experience working within several of ICSU’s major scientific bodies, including being a member of the executive committee and secretary-general of ICSU's Scientific Committee on the Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).

One of the first major tests of his leadership will be the central role that ICSU has volunteered to take in co-ordinating scientific input into the UN meeting on Sustainable Development that will take place in Johannesburg next September, a follow-up to the earth summit 10 years previously in Rio de Janeiro.

Working with representatives of bodies such as the InterAcademy Panel, that represents the world’s scientific academies, and the World Council of Engineering, ICSU is planning to take the lead in identifying the scientific priorities required to achieve sustainable development, in order to inform both politicians and the scientific community itself of these priorities.

Rosswall argues that the organisation should be well-fitted to such a role. “All nations must develop its societies in ways that are sustainable,“ he says. “Development of policy alternatives must rely on best available knowledge. The science community should be ready to offer such information."

Those keen to promote ICSU's traditional role in initiating and co-ordinating major international interdisciplinary programmes point to Rosswall's experience in helping to create the IGBP, as well as his long-standing involvement in other ICSU's activities, to back their enthusiasm for his appointment.

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