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The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which takes place in Johannesburg later this year, will provide a unique opportunity to promote the role of science and technology in the transition to sustainable development.

It is clearly important that science and technology appear on the summit’s agenda, and are reflected in the commitments and decisions made at the meeting. But it is also important that both activities are taken into account in the discussions held at the earlier preparatory committee sessions.

As a step in this direction, the United Nations has already invited the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Federation of Engineering Organisations to serve as co-organising partners for the Scientific and Technological Communities (S&TC), one of nine major groups identified in AGENDA 21.

A number of other scientific institutions also have become involved in this process, including the Third World Academy of Sciences, the InterAcademy Panel and the International Social Science Council.

One positive step taken since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 has been the introduction of ‘multi-stakeholder dialogues’ within the Commission on Sustainable Development, the monitoring and follow-up mechanism for AGENDA 21 set up by the UN.

The scientific and technological community has been permitted to participate in these dialogues as an independent and active delegation. And this immediately raises the questions: what does this community hope to achieve through its participation in the WSSD process? And what should its priorities be?

A number of such priorities come to mind. Firstly, the community must make explicit commitments at the summit to launch joint initiatives that bring together its different parts (for example, the natural and social sciences, engineering, medicine) in order to respond to specific sustainable development priorities identified during the WSSD process. These range from local to global scale, and relate, for example, to energy, transport, agriculture and food security, health, clean water and sanitation, etc.

Secondly, the science and technology community needs to reorient its research agenda to give higher priority to economic and social development. Too often this agenda is driven by the perceptions and priorities of ‘Northern’ funding agencies and governments, without sufficient recognition of the potential role of science and technology in helping to resolve the massive social, economic and environmental challenges in developing and transition countries.

In some ways, the situation is similar to the dilemma in the pharmaceutical sector. In developed countries, the growth of this sector has been spurred by market forces (operating through and on the costs of drugs) and the demands of health services focused on the needs of those who can afford to pay for high-quality health care. As a result, the special health needs of many developing countries have not received sufficient attention from the pharmaceutical sector in the past. .

Our global scientific and technological agenda has a similar imbalance, being focussed primarily on the need for solutions to the problems and concerns that are of highest priority to the wealthier segments of society.

Thirdly, the WSSD process should direct more scientific and technological capacity towards meeting the global challenges of sustainable development. These include alleviating poverty and inequality, and pursuing a transition to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption across the world.

Another priority is to help persuade governments, international organisations, the development assistance community and the private sector to make commitments to increase significantly their investments in science and technology in developing countries. This should be done through targeted and well co-ordinated initiatives intended to generate and retain the ‘critical mass” of science and technology capacity that each country needs to deal effectively with its own sustainable development priorities.

In addition to education and human resources, investments are also required for adequate infrastructure, including high quality schools and universities; modern, well-equipped and maintained laboratories; independent and peer-reviewed research funding mechanisms; and access to basic communications — including the Internet.

Related to this is the problem of the ‘brain drain’. Here, new partnerships and dialogue need to be established between ‘receiving’ and ‘sending’ countries in order to establish model agreements or ‘rules of the game’ that will provide solutions to the complex issues involved in the next five years.

Furthermore the scientific and technological community needs to recognise that its goals cannot be achieved in isolation. New partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders will be necessary, and the WSSD process provides a unique mechanism to facilitate this process.

That in turn means that stronger, more proactive links need to be established between the scientific and technical community and the development assistance community; there has been insufficient collaboration between these communities in the past.

Similarly, new partnerships and joint initiatives need to be developed with the education community to implement any decisions and commitments related to education and training for sustainable development that are reached at the WSSD.

Finally, satellite events are needed to launch an on-going global forum in which discussion can take place between scientists, engineers, policy-makers and members of the public on critical issues concerning the relationship between science and sustainable development. Typical areas in which such debate is required include global environmental change, biodiversity, industrial transformation, responsibility and ethics in science.

One promising sign that suggests at least some of these issues may be addressed at the WSSD is that a concerted effort is being made to encourage governments to include scientists on official national delegations throughout the preparatory process.

This will be a critical step towards ensuring that science and technology is taken into account during the WSSD process — and, hopefully, in the implementation of AGENDA 21. It also supports the wider ICSU goal of ensuring that science is recognised as an essential component of good governance.

Scientists and engineers must use the place that we have been given at the WSSD table to make commitments for the future on how the scientific and technical community — both acting independently and, increasingly, in partnership with others — can play a key role in facilitating the transition to sustainable development. Scientists from around the world are encouraged to become involved in this process in the months ahead.

This article was written when Dr. Kohler was executive director of the International Council for Science (ICSU). He has recently returned to the International Labour Office in Geneva.

© SciDev.Net 2002

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