"A word in your ear, ambassador"

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, April 22, 2003 at 12:45PM :

Nature 422, 471 - 472 (4 April 2003)

BOOK REVIEW: A word in your ear, ambassador


Ehsan Masood is at Leadership for Environment and Development International, based at Imperial College, 48 Prince's Gardens, London SW7 2PE, UK, and is a former science writer at Nature.

How can scientists provide more effective advice to the United Nations?

Knowledge and Diplomacy: Science Advice in the United Nations System
by the Committee for Survey Analysis of Science Advice on Sustainable Development to International Organizations, Development Security and Cooperation, National Research Council National Academies Press: 2002. 120 pp. $28 (US), $33.75. Available free online at: http://www.nap.edu/books/0309084903/html

It isn't often that the arcane world of science advice in the United Nations (UN) system makes front-page news all over the world. But science at the UN has lately found a mass audience thanks to Hans Blix, its chief inspector for biological and chemical weapons in Iraq, and his frequent reports to the UN Security Council.

Blix spent many years as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, a UN agency that was created by President Eisenhower to monitor and oversee the peaceful use of nuclear power. The IAEA is perhaps the only significant omission from Knowledge and Diplomacy, which is an otherwise excellent survey of the short history and practice of science advice within the UN system. The report was produced at the request of the science adviser to the US secretary of state Colin Powell. He asked the US National Academy of Sciences to survey and analyse science advice to the UN agencies that are involved in international sustainable development, paying close attention to water, fisheries, oceans and energy.

Some observers may well ponder the merits of such a request from the present US administration. This government has after all chosen to reject the recommendation of Mohamed El Baradei, the present head of the IAEA, that the UN weapons inspectors be allowed more time in Iraq. The administration has similarly had difficulty in accepting international scientific opinion on the merits of the Kyoto Protocol, and has yet to sign up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

The IAEA reports to the Security Council, which, strictly speaking, is not directly involved in international sustainable development. But an analysis of the agency, which is effectively the only permanent source of science advice to the UN's most powerful organ, would have made this report more complete. Furthermore, the IAEA itself is a vocal advocate of nuclear energy as the world begins to look for more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Knowledge and Diplomacy makes several recommendations that are aimed principally at giving science and scientists greater influence in the UN system. The recommendations include calling on the UN to commission more independent, peer-reviewed scientific advice; make greater use of comprehensive scientific-assessment methods and institutions, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); strengthen scientific advisory capabilities within member states; and adopt a transparent set of procedures for all UN science advisory work. But top of the list is a recommendation to establish a science adviser's office attached to each UN organization that has "substantial responsibilities" for implementing sustainable development, including the office of Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The report envisages that a science adviser would help each organization, and the UN as a whole, to recognize policy issues that would benefit from science advice; assist in drawing up a list of questions to ask; commission relevant work from external organizations; interpret research findings; and outline possible policy implications from the advice being given.

This recommendation, although admirable in its scope, is likely to be opposed by many UN member states. There are several reasons for this. Perhaps foremost is the assumption that the science advisers and their staff will be immune from political influences, and will be allowed to ask questions and chart an independent programme of research free from political interference. With the best will in the world, this rarely happens in the UN system. Every paid official in a UN centre is subject to the most intense lobbying from governments, non-governmental organizations and industry. A new science adviser's post will be no different, so the advice given can never be truly independent.

UN member states will fear that a science adviser's office attached to Kofi Annan will be answerable to the Security Council, which could influence both its programme of work and the sources of information used in its reports. Many UN member states will oppose such centralization of science advice, not because they particularly favour independent advice but because they will have less influence on the kinds of questions that such an adviser will be allowed to ask, and the experts that he or she will be encouraged to consult.

A further complicating factor is that many of the UN's sustainable-development organizations have scientific advisory mechanisms already in place, and it is unclear how these will work with a new layer of more centralized science advice. Some of these mechanisms are deeply politicized, but a few are of the type advocated elsewhere in Knowledge and Diplomacy.

For example, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has formally contracted its scientific advice to an external body, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK. Others, such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, receive mostly in-house advice from a committee of experts appointed by the governments who ratified the convention. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by contrast, takes its advice from the vast and comprehensive IPCC.

Far from giving science a stronger voice in the UN system, an additional layer of unsolicited science advice could have the opposite effect. History tells us that unless advice has been asked for, it is often ignored or rejected. In 1995, UNEP published an impressively weighty document called the Global Biodiversity Assessment. It was designed to provide its sister organization, the Convention on Biological Diversity, with the latest information on the state of the world's threatened species. But this document was ignored by the governments who belong to the biodiversity convention. This was partly because the assessment had not been asked for, but also because it more or less ignored the plight of the often very poor people who live in or near the world's biodiversity hotspots.

Many of the UN organizations involved in the Global Biodiversity Assessment have now set up what is called The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. This ambitious undertaking, involving governments, non-governmental organizations and industry, seeks to review the state of the world's ecosystems and promote people-centred conservation policies. Interestingly, this is an example of another of the recommendations from Knowledge and Diplomacy: making better use of scientific assessment facilities, such as the IPCC. Perhaps this is the recommendation to which the US secretary of state ought to pay most attention, particularly if the aim of Knowledge and Diplomacy is to build greater trust in science and scientists.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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