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TWAS Newsletter
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UN board: Elevate the global role of science

UN board: Elevate the global role of science

The final report by the UN Scientific Advisory Board, with strong TWAS representation, urges a more central place for science in international decision-making.

Science is a public good and deserves to be valued more highly and used effectively by decision-makers at all levels. But science requires more resources to become the game-changer it could be in dealing with global challenges.

In fact, all nations must invest more in science, technology and innovation (STI), argues The Future of Scientific Advice to the United Nations, A Summary Report to the Secretary-General of the United Nations from the Scientific Advisory Board, which was presented to Ban Ki-moon by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova on 18 September.

“STI can be a game-changer in dealing with nearly all the most pressing global challenges,” claim the experts of the Scientific Advisory Board, arguing that STI also have a key role to play in accomplishing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals approved last year by the United Nations. As an example, the report notes that scientists and engineers improved the efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines faster than had been expected, raising the hope that we will be able to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

See filmed interviews with UN Scientific Advisory Board members on the crucial issues they discussed when they met in Trieste, Italy.

Yet, only 12 countries* dedicate more than 2.5% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to research and development (R&D). This is far from enough considering what is at stake, say the authors of the report. They call on all countries, including the poorest, to invest at least 1% of their GDP on research and urge the most advanced countries to spend at least 3% of GDP on R&D. This effort must also focus on reinforcing science education, notably in developing countries, and on improving girls’ access to science courses.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, in a message published in the report, says: “It is a powerful resource for the Secretary-General and the UN System as a whole, so as to reinforce its role as an interlocutor of world leaders and as a central actor in defining solutions to global problems and the way these manifest themselves at multiple levels, from global to local.”

The Scientific Advisory Board seeks to inform the UN’s work by providing advice on science, technology and innovation for sustainable development, and brings together eminent scientists from all regions of the world – including four members of TWAS. As the board deliberated on these issues, members were hosted in Trieste 24-25 May by the Italian government and four international scientific institutions based in Trieste: TWAS; the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP); the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP); and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB).

The members of the Scientific Advisory Board contend that science should weigh more heavily on the decisions of political leaders. They note that almost 25 years passed between the scientific community’s first warnings about climate change and the adoption, in December 2015, of the Paris Agreement on that urgent issue. “Decisions are often taken in response to short-term economic and political interests, rather than the long-term interests of people and the planet,” they note.

Though the United Nations cannot provide solutions to all the world’s great challenges alone, it is best placed to set international objectives for doing so. “The world surely has a right to expect and even demand that the United Nations deliver what no other institution can: setting global priorities, promoting and coordinating research and action to address the most challenging problems, enabling the effective worldwide use of all data.”

Big data exchanges around the world offer an illustration of the role the United Nations could play to favour fair access. The report notes that the United Nations and its agencies can facilitate the gathering of all types of data while overseeing both quality and access. It also calls for international collaborative projects in this area.

About the Board

The Scientific Advisory Board of the United Nations Secretary-General was established in 2014 to formulate recommendations in the sciences, technology and innovation (STI) that will enlighten the work and decisions of the United Nations. The Board numbers 26 scientists of world renown appointed to take stock of scientific needs to tackle global challenges. UNESCO serves as the secretariat of the Board, which produces documents on subjects such as the data revolution, the role of the sciences in meeting sustainable development goals or the Delphi Study, which identifies major scientific concerns for the future of the planet. Four members of the board are TWAS Fellows: Abdallah Daar from Tanzania, Reiko Kuroda from Japan, Carlos Nobre from Brazil, and Abdul Hamid Zakri from Malaysia. TWAS Fellow Ahmed Zewail from Egypt was also a member before his death on 2 August 2016. 


*Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, Republic of Korea, Qatar, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, United States of America.

Editor's note: This article was largely reproduced from a media advisory by UNESCO.