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Knowledge & Diplomacy: Science Advice in the United Nations System
the status of one or more important global problems, often with recommendations for international cooperative action. One of the best known is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is often held up as a model for such scientific assessment processes.
A general problem common to all the UN bodies is the inherent difficulty of achieving both scientific credibility and influence on the political process. Scientific credibility normally rests upon the expertise, independence, and objectivity of the body issuing an opinion. Bias and conflicts of interest are considered defects to be eliminated or balanced. The scientific community places great stock in peer review, where reports or recommendations of a group of scientists are reviewed and criticized, usually anonymously by other scientists of equal expertise and standing, and the original group is expected to respond to the their criticisms.
The political process rests on quite different foundations. The UN organs are representative bodies, and rely for decision making on the interplay of national interests. Expertise is frequently given less weight than balance of interests, the opposite of the independence prized by scientists. Weight is also given to geographical, economic, and even religious balance in advisory bodies. Since most scientists work in the Western industrialized countries and Japan, a recruitment of the world’s best experts in many technical areas will result in an expert group with a majority of Westerners; such a body is given little credence within the UN system.
IPCC clearly stands out as a remarkable innovation in science advice in the United Nations system.3 Being an intergovernmental process, it illustrates the strengths and difficulties of integration of the science advice with policy making. The fact that IPCC relies on peer-reviewed research for its assessments discriminates against scientific input from countries whose scientists do not have opportunities to release their studies in peer-reviewed journals. Similar imbalances exist in regard to the distribution of research activities in general. The processes that allow for interactions between scientists and policy makers help to reduce these concerns, but they raise other questions related to the objectivity of the scientific advice. The use of consultancy reports, workshops, and other tools of conference diplomacy result in a mingling of political interests and scientific assessments to levels that may undermine the credibility of the outputs.
The absence of clear procedures dealing with science advice generally exposes United Nations staff to political influence, which compromises the management of the advisory process. While many of the reports may be excellent, their basis in political processes often casts a shadow of doubt over their scientific standing. Some UN organizations are instituting measures to improve review processes and are developing rosters of experts. But there is still dependence on a limited number of consultants who often have considerable individual influence on the outlook of the organizations that they serve.
To a scientist, science advice has a very concrete meaning. There is usually a powerful consensus among working scientists regarding the current state of knowledge in any field, and there are established procedures that are used by the scientific community to determine and express that consensus. The scientific consensus evolves with time through