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Tough negotiations during preparations for the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development suggest that science may benefit from a search for areas of consensus. But wider, more problematic, areas must not be ignored.

The prospects are dwindling fast that any significant international agreement will emerge from the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which takes place in Johannesburg later this year. In one sense, science could in principle be a beneficiary of the political deadlock; as political leaders look around for issues on which they can agree, the importance of science and technology in achieving sustainable development is an obvious and attractive one.

But it would be naïve to believe that science and technology can prosper in isolation from the broader political issues that will be on the agenda of the World Summit, and are proving so difficult to make progress on. For these broader issues contain the key to successful implementation of efforts to boost the role of science and technology.

There is certainly a practical need to address urgent topics, ranging from the search for cost-effective sources of renewable energy to the pursuit of environmentally-sustainable ways of increasing food production. To that extent, Calestous Juma of Harvard University, in his article ' Think locally, act locally', is right to stress the need to ensure that, in our preoccupation with global issues affecting the fate of the planet, we do not ignore the fact that sustainable policies will only work if they address problems as they exist at the local level.

At the same time, however, as Juma insists, we must keep the global picture in mind. For it is at this level that, within a globalised economy, both the incentives for and constraints on action tend to determine the gap between principles and practice.

Gloom over prospects

The main reason for despondency about the outcome of the WSSD is that fact that, at the end of the final preparatory meeting for the Summit in Bali, Indonesia, over the past two weeks, several large industrialised countries, led by the United States, remained locked in dispute with the developing world over precisely these broader issues.

The former, for example, are insisting on a commitment to good governance and the reduction of corruption, while the latter remain focussed on issues such as the need for more generous financial support and technology transfer agreements.

Faced with the prospect of a major public relations flop that could undermine the whole credibility of the United Nations as a negotiating forum, its secretary general Kofi Annan was rumoured at one stage to be contemplating shifting the whole focus of the Johannesburg meeting.

Rather than end up with a meeting that merely endorsed previous commitments, some of his advisers were recommending that the meeting should, instead, focus on that part of the WSSD preparations that does seem to be moving forward relatively smoothly. This is the section devoted to so-called 'Type 2' partnerships, made up largely of ad hoc agreements involving a selection of partners devoted to pursuing specific goals.

Diverting attention

The attraction of this approach is obvious; focussing attention on the success of practical projects that address achieve sustainable development could provide a convenient smokescreen for any failure to achieve significant commitment to change at the political level.

Science could well benefit from such a shift in focus. It is already striking, for example, that the draft recommendations for Johannesburg that proved to be relatively uncontroversial in Bali include a number of general clauses underlining the importance of science and technology in the promotion of sustainable development, as well as some specific proposals about how this should be achieved.

The draft 'plan of implementation' for Johannesburg that was the main focus of negotiations between government representatives endorses a number of ways of improving policy and decision-making through, for example, enhanced collaboration between natural and social scientists, and between scientists and policy makers.

Other statements agreed by the negotiators in Bali include the need to establish partnerships between scientific, public and private institutions, and to integrate scientists' advice into decision-making bodies "in order to ensure a greater role for science, technology development and engineering sectors".

In the specific case of Africa, which is likely to be a key focus of attention in Johannesburg, the draft proposals commit those signing the declaration at the end of the WSSD to "support African countries to develop effective science and technology institutions as well as research activities capable of developing, and adapting to, world-class technologies".

Square brackets

All well and good, particularly if these commitments can be turned into viable and effective programmes. But even these sections of the draft plan have their share of square brackets — the indicator of contentious proposals that have not yet been agreed because of differences of opinion between negotiators.

For example, many of the specific proposals on science and technology, such as the need for research into cleaner production and product technologies, will require extra funding. But there is no commitment to this in the draft, which, when it describes the need to provide resources for public funding of such research, continues to carry square brackets around the proposal that these should be "new and additional" to what is already available.

Similarly in the passage on helping African countries adapt to the impact of climate change, there remains a split between those who feel that signatories to the document should agree to provide such countries with adequate resources do to this, or merely "assist" them "in mobilizing" such resources. Elsewhere in the draft proposals, similar disagreements continue to cloud statements on issues ranging from intellectual property rights to the terms of technology transfer, topics that tend to recur (and create a stumbling block) in all international negotiations of this nature.

The larger picture

Discussions over the outcome of the WSSD will inevitably intensify to fever pitch over the two and a half months remaining before the conference opens. There is much that the scientific community can do in this period to capitalise on the consensus that already appears, in principle, to surround its demands for a greater role in the sustainable development debate. One such task, for example, will be to ensure that an effective display of its potential to play this role is made during the 'science summit' that, it has just been announced, will take place on the margins of the main meeting (See 'Science forum planned for World Summit').

But it is also important not to ignore the bigger picture. Science in general — and science for sustainable development in particular — is one of those 'public goods' whose fate (as even the United States has long accepted, even if it is reluctant to accept the term) cannot be left to market forces alone.

Indeed the whole sustainable development debate has highlighted the inadequacies of market forces and international trade agreements, both of which focus primarily on increasing trade rather than meeting social need (or protecting the natural environment). If the political outcome of Johannesburg is to make any impact, it must find ways of establishing a consensus, both in principle and in practice, on how these inadequacies can be remedied, not just on practical palliatives. That is the real challenge of the few weeks that are left.

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