A science advisor1 to a senior decision maker cannot be expected to carry in his or her head all of the knowledge necessary to advise on every problem, or even all knowledge of the sources of knowledge. The rapid rate at which science and technology are evolving makes it more difficult to rely on the heroic expertise of one individual. This is particularly true in the United Nations system, given the diversity of countries, conditions, and scientific and technological priorities. What is required, rather, is a sound knowledge of the scientific process through practical, productive experience in a scientific subject and broad familiarity with the national and international organization of science. The advisor should be known among scientists and should be well regarded, if not necessarily eminent, although eminence can be a significant advantage.

It is a further advantage if the career of an advisor has involved contact with a variety of scientific disciplines, some experience in management and administration, and some contact with public policy. The ability to maneuver at the boundaries of science and general policy is important, as is the ability to deal with a variety of people and professions.

The real task of the science advisor is to serve as an intermediary to engage the broad scientific community in the service of the organization or the decision maker. The science advisor, or the office of the science advisor, must be able to set in motion the science advisory process described below. This may include assisting the policy maker(s) to see the relationship of policy problems to science issues, and assisting them to decide what science information and advice may be helpful. The science advisor must help to interpret the policy-making world to the scientific community and help interpret the science advice to make it most useful in the policy world.

It is important to distinguish the advisory group or study committee that is convened to provide advice on one single question from the more general science advisory board or standing committee that may advise policy makers on issues related to science and technology. In this chapter we will deal with the first kind of group, which we shall call a study committee for clarity and distinction.

Knowing when science advice is needed

Many policy problems that are apparently unrelated to science have scientific aspects, for which decision makers might profit from science advice. This may not always be clear unless someone familiar with the science is involved early in problem formulation. Much of the problem formulation in the United Nations is provided by government representatives and by the UN monitoring, assessment, and reporting systems. Several flagship reports of the United Nations, such as UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook, UNDP’s Human Development Report and UNESCO’s World Science Report, highlight emerging issues whose solutions may require science advice. Science advice may also be required to deal with controversial issues upon which governments are planning common actions or are being requested to allocate resources. Other areas that benefit from science


The discussion of the role of science advisor applies equally well to the chairman of a scientific advisory committee. It is not generally good practice for a decision maker to chair his own advisory committee. That is similar to a defendant acting as his own lawyer; he loses the option of rejecting the advice (without losing the confidence of the committee).

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