Thursday, December 11, 2014

UN Science Advisory Board to Member States: "Help us to increase science's profile"

While the European Commission decided to scrap the post of Chief Scientific Advisor, the Secretary-General of the United Nations nominated 26 of them in a UN Scientific Avisory Board (SAB). It met for the first time in Berlin on 30-31 January 2014 and today in Paris at UNESCO, who co-chairs the SAB and hosts its secretariat.

The Boad is co-chaired by Zakri Abdul Hamid, the Sience Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia (twitter: @ZakriZAH). Malaysia will host the third SAB meeting end of May 2014, followed by the Russian Federation.

Hamid said that Ban Ki Moon had asked the SAB for 5 deliverables, meaning 5 advice reports:
  1. on how Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) can be used to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that the United Nations will define end of 2015
  2. to feed into the Global Report on Sustainable Development that the Secretary General will present to the United Nations end of 2015 when they will adopt the SDGs 
  3. on the necessary means to implement the SDGs (hot topic, because it's about money)
  4. on how to make use of the data revolution (explosion of data thanks to modern and mobile technology) to check whether development is actually improving
  5. on how to deal with climate change (to advise the international community which will try to come to a new climate agreement in Paris in December 2015).
In the day and a half the SAB Members met in Paris they discussed a work programme for 2015. Maria Ivanova, Co-Director of the Boston Center for Governance and Sustainability (twitter: @mivanova), mentioned 3 particular challenges they had defined:

  1. Should we engage other scientists and how?
  2. How can the scientific community define relevant reports?
  3. To improve the science-policy nexus we need to understand what this nexus is. How do we operationalize it?
With regard to the data revolution Susan Avery, Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spoke about the SAB's discussion about the UN Report "A World That Counts". Nowadays there are so many data available to monitor development that the challenge is no longer to find them but how to select them. And once selected, it requires sophisticated scientific models to aggregate them into insightful and relevant conclusions about how well a community or a region is developing. Key challenges are for example: interoperability of existing local observance systems for a completer overview, open access to data for researchers and privacy protection.

With regard to the implementation of development goals Tanya Abrahamse, CEO of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, mentioned several relevant questions such as: what kind of new human capital do we need to deliver? Where do we find the financial resources? How can we transfer technology from places where it is available to places where it is needed? And which existing or future partnerships could be helpful in this regard?

I asked how the SAB would capitalize on available expertise in UNESCO's scientific programmes on water, oceans, biodiversity, fundamental science and social sciences. The Director-General answered that the SAB's mandate was not to look into specific topics of a specific UN organization but rather to look at the broader systemic aspects of global and regional developmental challenges. It must provide the analytical overview necessary to overcome scientific and governmental silo's to identify sustainable solutions.

The Director-General added however that UNESCO could provide input for the SAB debates, and the members of the SAB seemed eager to engage with Member States and their scientific communities. To my delightment Maria Ivanova even turned the question around: "The question is not how we can help UNESCO to raise its scientific profile, but how can you Member States help us to raise the profile of science!"

Clearly, the first step towards this encounter between national science communities and Ban Ki Moon's Science Advisors has been taken. I encourage both scientific institutions, NGO's and governments to take the next ones. I am confident that two things will be very useful in this inclusive process of supporting the world's development agenda: social media and the short & easy updates the UN SAB will hopefully post on their website from time to time.

Director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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