Public Release: 

UNESCO Director-General Urges Greater Role For Scientists In Public Policy

UNESCO

Paris, 21 January - Director-General Federico Mayor today called on scientists to help shape public policy at all levels of society on the eve of a new century and pledged UNESCO's support in this endeavour, at the inaugural meeting of UNESCO's International Scientific Advisory Board (ISAB).

"You, the scientific community, have an immense power to influence decision-makers at the close of this century because they respect the fact that your ethical and policy concerns are inspired by a genuine commitment and curiosity," Mr. Mayor told the board, which includes seven Nobel laureates among its current 56 members from 26 countries from every world region.

Mr. Mayor created the open-ended board to advise UNESCO on strategic issues of science, recommend activities to promote, share and apply scientific knowledge, and propose themes and objectives of a World Science Conference planned by UNESCO for 1998-1999.

Board members took part in three "brainstorming" sessions on science and science policy during the two-day meeting at UNESCO Headquarters. Today's session was marked by unanimous support for a World Science Conference along with diverse opinions on its possible agenda.

"One of the tasks of a World Science Conference will be to show to the political world and general public the benefits human beings have received for a long time from scientific developments," said ISAB President Werner Arber, the Swiss microbiologist and Nobel laureate.

"A World Science Conference should not be a conference of scientists. It should have a very significant representation from the political sector, the industrial sector, the media as well as any critics of science," said the United States physicist Donald Langenberg, Chancellor of the University of Maryland. "Let's not miss the opportunity to hear (other) views on the role we ought to play and perhaps come to a common understanding of our stake in the coming millennium," he said.

"We must not treat the conference as a paean of praise for science -- it must look in a critical way at our role," argued the Indian physicist Mambillikalathil Menon. "We must learn from the mistakes of the past. It must not just be a big meeting but something which really has an impact as we move on to the next century."

"We are responsible in the view of the public for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for inventing Napalm," suggested the Italian biochemist Ernesto Carafoli, president of the Paris-based International Cell Research Organization. The conference should "try to change the way the public at large sees science. The most important thing is to try to convince people that we are not as evil as they see us," he said.

Wakako Hironaka, Chairperson of the Special Committee on Science and Technology of Japan's Parliament, described her government's increased support for goal-oriented research and development, notably in environmental and medical sciences. "The World Science Conference offers a precious opportunity to present the role of science in human development (and) will have a great impact on Japan's future science policy," she said.

The British engineer and consultant Martin Lees said a World Conference should address ways to close the science gap between industrialised and developing countries. He warned that the great scientific communities of the former Soviet bloc were "in deepest trouble...surely that is a subject that must be given some discussion."

At this afternoon's closing session, Mr. Mayor argued that such a World Science Conference should call for a few "very clear proposals that will be a challenge for decision-makers to adopt" and include the widest possible range of participants: "those who should be the beneficiaries must also be the protagonists of the conference."

Today's discussion followed two earlier brainstorming sessions held yesterday. The first session, "Science for the Future," began with a brief overview of UNESCO's activities in science, ranging from preserving biosphere reserves to forging university-industry collaboration in applied science and technology, to implementing the recently launched World Solar Programme 1996-2005. The second session, "Science, Society and Sustainable Development in Future Perspective," covered such themes as science and the environment, science and education, science ethics and science for development.

The United States geneticist Joshua Lederberg, laureate of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, expressed hope that UNESCO could be a forum for developing and recommending national scientific policy guidelines. "The United States has a chaotic science policy, most countries have none at all, and others have policies that are negative and objectionable in their short-sightedness," he argued.

"Science and higher education are vital infrastructural elements for development," said the Indian chemist C.N.R. Rao, president of the Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. He recommended increased transdisciplinary "networking between the 'E', 'S' and 'C' of UNESCO."

"Very often we talk about the importance of scientific discoveries among ourselves and forget that our message should go to leaders and to society at the world level," said the Chilean biochemist Jorge Allende, one of many participants who called for greater dialogue and exchange with the non-scientific community.

In his opening address to ISAB yesterday, Mr. Mayor urged greater government funding for basic sciences: "I feel it is essential to emphasise the importance of basic sciences - which are too often neglected by decision-makers and politicians seeking short-term success and benefits (...) UNESCO has given a strategic priority in its sciences programme to action aimed at overcoming the existing global inequality in basic science," he said. A trained biochemist, he also asked board members always to be aware of the impact their recommendations have at the local level and to serve as an "ethical voice" promoting "better ways of sharing knowledge and improving access to knowledge."

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Andrew Radolf
UNESCO New York
Tel: +1 (212) 963 5974
Fax: +1 (212) 963 8014

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