Science most obviously appears on the global agenda in processes such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. But it features in many other ways too, be it in the success of the Antarctic Treaty or the myriad ways in which UN agencies assist member states.
Much UN policy is developed by officials in New York or Geneva. Their decisions depend on agreement from member states at the General Assembly or executive boards. Member states are represented at the UN by diplomats.
It is usually these diplomats who must navigate their way through the morass of square brackets in documents. Yet despite the importance of scientific input to so many UN agency discussions, too few foreign ministries have the means to make use of such input. To help address this deficit, the International Network for Government Science Advice has fostered the development of the Foreign Ministries Science and Technology Advice Network, which now includes more than 20 countries.
At its biennial congress in Tokyo on 6 and 7 November, INGSA announced the establishment of a more inclusive division for Science Policy in International Diplomacy and External Relations to expand the reach of the foreign ministries’ science advice network and encourage the expansion of science diplomacy.
Every area of policymaking can benefit from robustly derived evidence, whether from the natural or social sciences. This is particularly true for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where effective progress towards many targets requires scientific input into policy development and implementation plans.
The appropriate use of science in policy discussions should—in principle and subject to a significant caveat—reduce disagreement on the nature of a challenge and the possible approaches to addressing it. This does not obviate the role of societal values, including national interest, in choosing between options. Rather, it clarifies the options, showing the possibilities and the consequences of any action or inaction.
The caveat is that these processes must use peer-reviewed science of an internationally recognised standard. This much should be obvious, but it is a principle that needs to be stated and protected. Scientific knowledge is frequently and intentionally undermined, evidence is manipulated, false facts are disseminated and interpretation is massaged to fit preconceived views. All this simply underscores the importance of ensuring science has an effective voice in policy discussions.
More work is needed to bridge science and policy within the UN agencies themselves. The previous secretary-general Ban Ki-moon took a step in the right direction with the establishment in 2013 of a Scientific Advisory Board. But from the outset it was fraught—underfunded, lacking a standing secretariat, chaired by the head of Unesco rather than one of its members, and with a very narrow mandate. Rather than redress these limitations, the current secretary-general António Guterres chose not to renew this board in 2017, and nothing has replaced it.
These issues were raised at the 2017 Science, Technology and Innovation Forum of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism for the SDGs, but were not transmitted to the member states.
One consequence of this lacuna is the exclusion of many groups from contributing to UN policymaking. For instance, the Global Sustainable Development Report’s scientists are restricted to only periodic input through their report. Many other international groups working towards the 2030 SDGs have something worthy to add, but their ability to do so is hampered by the lack of a pathway and instead depends capriciously on their sponsorship.
That the UN system needs effective lines of scientific input is clear both on technical issues and in science diplomacy. But how can this be achieved given the number of agencies, their different cultures, mandates and member state engagement?
The INGSA congress focused on the SDGs and the importance of science to their progress. A number of speakers, including Helen Clark, former administrator of the UN Development Programme, underlined the gap. Is the answer a properly formed and funded scientific board, or is that too fraught a proposal?
Perhaps the International Science Council—formed this year when the International Council for Science and International Social Science Council merged—and its subsidiary Ingsa are better placed than the UN to coordinate science-based input to global policy-making. This could be done quickly and efficiently, provided there is a portal into the UN structure. With 2030 around the corner, some solution is needed.
Peter Gluckman is chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice and president-elect of the International Science Council.
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This article also appeared in Research Europe