Since the 1950s, international cooperation in science has grown. The United Nations has assumed a responsibility to advance human health, welfare, and development, while better managing and conserving the environment and natural resources. Because of the inherent technical aspects of this responsibility for sustainable development1, the United Nations organizations have steadily increased their interest in scientific and technological issues. This has bred a need for science advice and reliance on experts from outside the organization. This report2 addresses the ways in which the need for scientific input has been met, compares the methods to a composite set of good and tested approaches used for scientific input by other organizations, and makes some recommendations for directions in which the UN system might move.
The need for scientific advice in the UN system has been approached in different ways by different organs of the system and at different times. The United Nations structure includes a General Assembly, commissions, programs, research institutes, agencies, treaty bodies, forums, and conferences. Several of the organs of the United Nations are autonomous and respond to the countries through their governing bodies rather than to the General Assembly or other UN organs. The agency heads are responsible for alerting governments and governing bodies to emerging issues in their areas of jurisdiction, including scientific issues.
Science advisory mechanisms of one sort or another are found throughout the system. Many of the organs of the United Nations have set up advisory committees or processes to provide scientific input into decision making but there are no standard or generally applicable procedures that ensure quality and balance. A common approach is “conference diplomacy,” relying on conferences, workshops, and expert group meetings to provide advice, with documents prepared by the secretariat or consultants; heavy weight is given to geographical representation in selection of experts, and there is no scientific peer review. Treaty organizations dealing with a variety of environmental and sustainable development issues have started to establish subsidiary bodies to bring science advice into their functions, but mainly in the context of negotiating positions. There also are a few quasi-independent science assessment processes in the United Nations system that provides advice to governments. These are surveys and analyses of
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
See Appendix II for a description of IPCC procedures.
experiment, discovery, and new theoretical ideas, and what is considered good science advice mirrors this evolutionary process, taking account of change and continuing uncertainty. A balance must be found that retains scientific integrity and still provides policy influence.
Reflecting the nature of science itself, science advice involves certain principles and procedures. These generally involve the participation of balanced multidisciplinary expert panels selected to study specific problems, with heavy reliance on peer review of consensus reports and explicit exposure of areas of uncertainty, disagreement, and dissent. A partial solution is to have the science advisory process of each UN body managed by an appointed science advisor within the directorate who can provide interpretation for the political bodies of credible science advice and guidance for the scientists on the policy issues. This means that a science advisor is not simply one who “tells truth to power,” in part because no science advisor can possess more than a small part of the knowledge that is relevant to most complex scientific questions. Instead, the role of the advisor should be to organize the process and serve as a link between decision makers and the scientific community. The science advisor can formulate the questions, recruit the experts, oversee the process, organize the peer review, and then advise the executive how to make use of the advice in the light of other legitimate inputs and interests. This will effectively create a new service within the secretariat to serve as a buffer and intermediary between the strict procedural demands of a credible science advice system and the give and take of the political process.
There are several institutions, national and international, that have developed science advice procedures based on independence and peer review. The committee has surveyed many of these institutions’ procedures, and descriptions of their processes appear in the annexes. This information, together with the procedures and practices of the US National Academies and the experience of the committee members, formed the basis of the discussion of a model process for science advice presented in chapter 2 of this report. It is intended to be over inclusive; it is not the committee’s view or recommendation that all the processes and procedures described must be followed in detail in all cases. Each organization will have to ponder the issues involved, and adapt these prescriptions to their own needs. The material in Chapter 2 should, however, provide a guide to most of the problems and pitfalls that have been encountered by others, and to some of the means by which organizations have found solutions.
In this report, some actions are proposed to enhance the availability, value, and use of science advice within the United Nations system.
Recommendation 1: Governing bodies of the United Nations that have substantial responsibilities for implementing sustainable development programs should each create an Office of the Science Advisor or equivalent facility or organizational function appropriate to its mandate.
The science advisory function should be within the office of the Secretary-General, Director-General, or Executive Secretary of the organ or conference and should serve the governing body of the organization through the Secretariat. These bodies include the governing bodies of specialized agencies, and the governing bodies of specially convened international meetings, such as the 1994 UN meetings on population in Cairo the World
summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, and the World summit on the Information Society to be held in 2003 and 2005 in Geneva and Tunis, respectively,
The purpose of this recommendation is to improve the current processes by inserting a person or organizational mechanism to assist in the recognition of policy issues that require science advice, in the formulation of the science questions in obtaining the science advice, and in interpreting the resulting scientific advice and in using it in the ensuing policy process.
Recommendation 2: Each such science advisory facility or organizational mechanism should adopt an appropriate set of general procedures based on those described in this report, adapted to any special circumstances of the organization. These procedures should be widely publicized within the corresponding diplomatic and scientific communities. The purpose of this recommendation is to ensure that the UN Organizations move toward reasonable uniformity of science advisory practices based upon the best practices of the word scientific community.
Recommendation 3. The United Nations should help member states to strengthen their own scientific advisory capabilities, and it should recruit scientists associated with these national capabilities for UN scientific advisory functions. The United Nations will be better able to use scientific advice when all nations have the capability to participate fully in its scientific advisory processes.
Recommendation 4. To complement their internal scientific advisory processes, chief executives and deliberative assemblies, separately or in cooperation, should commission science policy advice from established independent organizations that follow procedures similar to those described here.
Recommendation 5. Assemblies and other deliberative bodies should make greater use of scientific assessment mechanisms, such as the IPCC, that have the transparency and credibility of a scientific process. Scientific assessment mechanisms provide a good model to be considered for other nonscientific, deliberative, and advisory processes.