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UN board urges science for development

UN board urges science for development

Meeting in Trieste, Italy, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's Scientific Advisory Board advanced policy proposals for sustainable development in key areas: climate, food, health and indigenous knowledge.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon asked his Scientific Advisory Board to support nations in reaching sustainable development goals during the Board's fifth meeting, held in Trieste, Italy. After discussion and debate, the Board members advanced recommendations for implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in critically important areas such as climate-related risk, indigenous and local knowledge for development, food security and health.

The meeting was hosted 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).

 “As you know, the 2030 Agenda is a people-centred, planet-friendly framework to build a life of dignity for all and leave no one behind,” Ban said in a video message that opened the meeting. “Science is essential to moving this ambitious agenda forward. We need to help ensure that decisions are informed by the best available knowledge. That means integrating cutting-edge science into policy.”

“The world is calling out for science,” declared UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova. “We need a new focus on the sciences, to promote equitable and inclusive growth, to eradicate poverty, to bolster energy, water and food security, to control disease, to mitigate disasters, to build sustainable cities.” [Bokova was unable to attend the Trieste meeting, but her speech for the ceremonial open session was read by Flavia Schlegel, UNESCO assistant director-general for natural sciences.]

The Scientific Advisory Board seeks to inform the UN’s work by providing advice on science, technology and innovation for sustainable development. The Board brings together 25 eminent scientists from all regions of the world – including five members of TWAS – and aims to provide a complete picture of scientific needs to face global challenges, taking into consideration natural and social sciences as well as local and indigenous knowledge systems. It will present its conclusions by the end of the year. UNESCO hosts the Secretariat of the Board.

In their reflections on harnessing the potential of science for sustainable development, the Board stressed the need to recognize science as a universal public good that empowers people to find the solutions they need. Member Jörg Hacker, president of the German National Academy of Sciences-Leopoldina, led efforts to define core principles that underpin science’s role in development, such as enhancing diversity, strengthening science education and promoting interdisciplinary cooperation, as well as key recommendations to maximize the contribution of science in achieving sustainable development goals.

One of the key messages that emerged from the discussion was to frame climate change as an issue of resilience and risk management, because uncertainty is a cause for action. Climate-related risks are too large and serious to be ignored, especially as they disproportionately affect the poor. The Board is preparing a policy brief, under the leadership Carlos Nobre, president of the CAPES foundation in Brazil's Ministry of Education, to present this new approach. It will draw from some aspects of health policies in the face of risk and uncertainty, for example to address risks of epidemics.

Local and indigenous knowledge was recognized as a crucial component for sustainability and resilience. Such knowledge systems offer an understanding of the local environment and complement other types of knowledge to find context-sensitive solutions. These are the systems that inform day-to-day decision-making in many parts of the world. Joji Cariño of the Philippines, senior policy advisor in the Forest Peoples Programme, is leading the Board’s work in finalizing a policy brief on Indigenous knowledge and science for sustainable development.

The Board also focused on food security and health. Food is the most basic need of humanity, and in the face of current global challenges food security is under threat in many parts of the world. The challenges that food systems face are complex an innumerable, but the Board, led by World Food Prize winner Gebisa Ejeta of Purdue University (USA), focused on three aspects: rapid growth in global population and feeding a growing world; changing diets as a result of improved economies; and nutrition (under-nutrition, over-nutrition and deficiencies in micro-nutrients).  

The Board will finalize policy briefs on these issues in the coming weeks.

“We are in a very crucial phase of the UNSAB work, as we are finalizing our report to the UN Secretary General,” explained Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti, director-general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), who co-chaired the meeting. “It will stress the fundamental important of science and education for a sustainable world, and offer advice on how to strengthen the links between scientists and decision-makers. On a more personal note, I find the meetings of the UN SAB always productive and enriching, and the current one in Trieste confirms this tradition.”

The Board benefited from inputs by high-level observers attending the meeting, including Romain Murenzi, executive director of TWAS; Mohamed Hassan, president of the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP); Gordon McBean, president of the International Council for Science (ICSU); Alberto Martinelli, president of the International Social Science Council (ISSC), and Elena Manaenkova, assistant secretary-general of the World Meteorological Association (WMO).

Murenzi, in an address to the Board's open session, stressed the extraordinary progress achieved by some developing nations that have invested in research. "We also see, however, that the progress has been uneven," Murenzi said. "Especially among the 48 Least Developed Countries, profound human challenges remain in food production, clean water, health care, energy, climate change and urbanisation."

He cited PhD education and training fellowships offered by TWAS and it's partner, the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World, as a valuable contribution to sustainable prosperity. 

Holding the meeting at the ICTP provided an opportunity for an exchange between the members of the Board and the faculty and students of several major scientific institutions based in Trieste, during a high-level session on “Strengthening scientific human capacity in developing countries”, which is available online.

In addition to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the four Trieste centres, two other partners provided key support: the Autonomous Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Italy's National Research Council (CNR).


[See photos of the Scientific Advisory Board's Fifth Meeting on Flickr: Day One; the High-Level Open Session; and the press conference]

[Watch the video: the High-Level Open Session; the press conference.]