was in fact created through UNESCO, and we continue to work very closely with them on issues such as digital access in Africa and physics education for teachers in Africa. The International Council for Science (ICSU) predates us but is a very close partner institution. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry is another partner. We are working very closely with them on the International Year of Chemistry. One of the things that is perhaps less well understood about UNESCO is the very close relationships we have with our member states. We are unique within the United Nations specialized agencies and programs in that we actually work in the same building in Paris as the permanent delegations from the member states, which enables a very close working relationship on concrete projects. We also have a structure that is unique within the UN system. The national commissions for UNESCO bring civil society together to help set directions for the organization. These commissions are more or less active. Korea, for example, has 600 people working on education, science, and culture, and UNESCO has become a household word there.
Lastly, we have perceived political neutrality. What that means is that we can convene discussions about topics that are quite thorny and have our 193 member states from around the world come together and discuss them in an amicable manner.
On the other hand, we could have a more strategic focus. We need to have a better working system of all of these various parts and partners; we need to work better with other UN agencies, the private sector, and other sectors of society; and we need to enhance our visibility.
Given these strengths and weaknesses, UNESCO’s science agenda should prioritize three things. First, we should help tackle problems that intrinsically require international cooperation and provide services for member states in that regard. Second, we should build on our original mandate. UNESCO was created with the slogan of building peace in the minds of men and women. We focus on those areas in which the science agenda interacts very closely with the issue of conflict prevention and conflict resolution. The broader agenda of peace is very dear to our hearts. I cite a couple of examples here. One is our work on transboundary aquifers, which I am going to talk about later in terms of large-scale data challenges. The other one is a fascinating effort called SESAME (International Center for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), which brings together scientists throughout the Middle East. It is a very important project in that it is putting together a synchrotron in Jordan and bringing together a scientific community from throughout the disciplines that can use this light source. It is an extraordinary example of scientists from a region with a huge amount of tension actually working together. Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians, Turkish, and so on are all working on the same large-scale science project.
Lastly, perhaps the bulk of our activity falls into serving the member states. We are international civil servants. We need to do the best job possible to help our member states reach their own goals for building scientific, technological, and innovation capacity in order to address poverty eradication and also provide the scientific basis for the solutions that are being proposed. Of course, we should continue to prioritize work in those areas where we have a lot of expertise, such as water.
At UNESCO, we have a unique view regarding the science and the development agendas. We have a very people-centered approach—an approach that is based on empowerment, ethics, and respect for local knowledge, but also our conviction that the ability to contribute to global challenges and the opportunities to do so are in fact fundamental human rights.
Since I joined UNESCO, we have melded our activities into a new strategic plan to be approved by our executive board next month. We have clustered our activities into two main areas, which I will talk about to show how the data challenges map onto some of these activities.