UN Sustainable Development Activities and Their Science Advisory Processes
This chapter presents a review of the functioning of the United Nations system with emphasis on the role of science in sustainable development activities. As indicated in the Preface, the survey seeks to illustrate the role of science advice in informing policy on water, energy, fisheries, and oceans, which will require first an examination of the overall UN system. This chapter outlines the major functions and structure of the United Nations, and will try to demonstrate both the complexity of the United Nations system and the diversity of activities carried out by the organization. This complexity and diversity make it difficult to design and apply a single, uniform science advice system.
Many international organizations involved in monitoring, assessment, and reporting base their activities on a broad internal base of expertise of their staff and may not realize the importance of science advice. Some of the organizations such as IUCN and the World Bank have chief scientists responsible for providing science advice to the organization. The offices of the chief scientists provide a starting point for strengthening science advice through the adoption of appropriate procedures where they do not exist. Various organizations are presently reforming their science advice systems to incorporate variations of the elements outlined in Chapter 2, with the goal of seeking a balance between scientific credibility on the one hand, and effective interactions between science and policy on the other.
Science and sustainable development
The United Nations system plays a leading role in promoting the application of science and technology to sustainable development. Agenda 21 explicitly cites science and technology as key to the implementation of sustainable development goals, along with finances, human resources, and capacity building. Chapter 18 of Agenda 21 on freshwater resources, for example, states: “The development of interactive databases, forecasting methods, and economic planning models appropriate to the task of managing water resources in an efficient and sustainable manner will require the application of new techniques, such as geographical information systems and expert systems to gather, assimilate, analyze and display multisectoral information and to optimize decision making. In addition, the development of new and alternative sources of water supply and low-cost water technologies will require innovative applied research. This will involve the transfer, adaptation and diffusion of new techniques and technology among
developing countries, as well as the development of endogenous capacity, for the purpose of being able to deal with the added dimension of integrating engineering, economic, environmental and social aspects of water resources management and predicting the effects in terms of human impact.”
Similarly, Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 for oceans calls upon states to “cooperate in the development of necessary coastal systematic observation, research, and information management systems. They should provide access to and transfer environmentally safe technologies and methodologies for sustainable development of coastal and marine areas to developing countries. They should also develop technologies and endogenous scientific and technological capacities.” The pervasiveness of the role of science and technology in Agenda 21 is accentuated in a call in Chapter 31 of Agenda 21 on governments to strengthen “science and technology advice to the highest levels of the United Nations, and other international institutions, in order to ensure the inclusion of science and technology know-how in sustainable development policies and strategies.” This call is consistent with efforts to provide science and technology advice to the highest levels of governments (Golden, 1991).
This background provides the basis against which to relate the functions of the UN system to the role of science advice in sustainable development. The rest of this chapter describes a selected number of functions (norm setting; research and development; monitoring, assessing, and reporting; and operations, technical assistance, and technology transfer) and explores the extent to which scientific and technical information and advice are relevant to their effective execution.
A number of United Nations agencies are engaged in generating prescriptive statements or norms (guidelines, principles, standards, and rules) (Chayes and Chayes, 1995). This is one of the most important functions of the United Nations system. The norms are aimed at influencing the behavior of states, although the ultimate target is often to influence the behavior of institutions or individuals (Braithway and Drahos, 2000). The norms generated by the United Nations vary considerably in specificity. For example, the United Nations General Assembly and conferences focusing on specific themes usually generate guidelines that are general in nature and nonbinding in character, whereas some specialized agencies, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), produce technical guidelines and standards that are more specific than the decisions of the United Nations General Assembly.1
A number of international conventions set specific rules on issues related to sustainable development. For example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has specific rules and procedures for regulating international trade and is supported through scientific and technical input provided by the
World Conservation Union (IUCN), the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). CITES also relies on scientific and technical input provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), whose participation has been central to the functioning of the convention (Curlie and Andresen, 2002; Keck and Sikkink, 1999). The World Trade Organization (WTO) is another example of an international body that is devoted to setting rules. As the level of specificity increases (i.e., from guidelines to rules), so does the demand for more specific scientific and technical information as well as institutional arrangements that ensure continuous review and harmonization of practices.
Whereas general state-of-the-art assessments are needed to support decision making in bodies such as general assemblies, the setting of standards and rules requires more detailed technical information that is provided through specialized scientific and technical committees or working groups. For example, the ITU produces over 200 new or revised standards a year through a series of technical working groups. This level of intensity in standards setting cannot be achieved through general conferences. However, efforts to establish major trends such as global warming require synthesizing available knowledge and establishing scientific consensus, as has been done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The effective functioning of rule-based organizations such as the WTO depends largely on the existence of institutional arrangements that make use of the latest available scientific and technical knowledge. The emphasis that WTO places on science-based decision making, especially on issues such as sanitary and phytosanitary standards in international trade, illustrates this point (NRC, 2000).
Debates over how to deal with scientific uncertainty in international trade continue to feature prominently in diplomacy. For example, the United Nations has sought to resolve some of the disputes over the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods by adopting the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The protocol is offered as an alternative for integrating environmental considerations into international trade practices through the promotion of the precautionary principle2 (Gaugitsh, 2002). While advocates of this approach claim it would stimulate further research, others contend that the precautionary approach is not a science-based approach to decision making and suggest that its implementation would interfere with international trade (Marchant, 2002). It is notable that, although governments called for the use of the best available scientific and technical information to guide the biosafety negotiations, no systematic efforts were made to take stock of the available knowledge on the subject, and
as a result much of the scientific input was provided through the direct contributions of government delegates (Gaugitsh, 2002). Divergent interpretations over the significance of existing studies on the safety of GM crops for human health, the environment, and socioeconomic systems continue to be a major issue of public concern (Gupta, 2000). The persistence of varied interpretations of the available information illustrates the need for scientific assessment to guide discussions and negotiations on major issues of international interest (Susskind, 1994).
Norm setting is one of the most important functions of the United Nations. This processes depends on continuous availability of scientific and technical information. While establishing general guidelines and principles can be achieved largely through the use of periodic scientific assessments, more technical efforts to change behavior through the use of standards and rules require continuous access to the latest available information. Whereas scientific assessments may require wide intergovernmental participation over longer periods, smaller technical working groups or committees often carry them out. The growing complexity of economic activity and demand for broadening the scope of international governance require greater use of scientific information. This feature of global governance is likely to become more explicit in the future, leading to more frequent examinations of the way international organizations use science advice in their activities.
Research and development
The United Nations carries out a wide variety of research activities, ranging from basic science to policy analysis. The specialized agencies of the United Nations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), are engaged in a variety of scientific research activities in their areas of expertise. Much of this work is carried out through partnerships with other research institutions around the world. The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) located in Trieste, Italy and New Delhi, conducts research, provides services to member states and carries out training programs. More than 300 ICGEB researchers from 30 countries pursue inquiries into development problems such as malaria and hepatitis vaccines, study of human pathogenic viruses and human genetic diseases, and the genetic manipulation of plants (Juma, 2002a).
Another UN initiative, the Programme for Biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations University (UNU/BIOLAC), was established in July 1988 in Caracas, Venezuela. UNU/BIOLAC promotes biotechnology development in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Areas of focus include molecular biology, molecular pathology, genomics, industrial biotechnology, environmental biotechnology, and agricultural biotechnology (Juma, 2002a).
Equally important are social science research activities carried out in institutions such as the United Nations University, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Much of the research carried out by these institutions is intended to provide policy recommendations to governments and the general public, and much of it touches on issues related to science advice. For example, the United Nations Conference on Trade
and Development (UNCTAD) over the years has been a leading supporter of policy research related to the role of technology in development. The United Nations University, through its research centers, has also been a major player in policy research.
The United Nations is also involved in R&D activities through its support of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), created in 1971. The aim of the CGIAR is to contribute to food security and eradicate poverty in developing countries through the use of research, partnerships, capacity building, and policy support. The CGIAR, as an association of public and private members, supports a network of 16 centers operating in more than 100 countries to mobilize science and technology to address hunger and poverty, improve human nutrition and health, and protect the environment. It operates at a budget of $320 million a year contributed by a consortium of donors. More than 8,500 CGIAR scientists and scientific staff are engaged in research to improve tropical agriculture. The CGIAR holds one of the world’s largest ex situ collections of plant genetic resources in trust for the world community. It contains more than 500,000 accessions of over 3,000 crop, forage, and agroforestry species. The collection includes farmers’ varieties and improved varieties and the wild species from which those varieties were derived. The collections have been placed under FAO administration.
Science advice is an integral part of the CGIAR, whose secretariat has a science advisor. As part of its reform program, the CGIAR has replaced its Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) with a Science Council (SC). The aim of the SC is to serve as the guardian of relevance and quality of science in the CGIAR and to advise the organization on strategic scientific issues relevant to its mission. The Council also functions as a strategic adviser to the Executive Council and its various committees. The SC focuses on ensuring that research throughout the system is peer reviewed. It consists of eight scientists with expertise in the biological, physical, and social sciences. The range of skills, as well as its size, will be regularly reviewed by the Executive Committee and adjusted to the needs of the organization.
Research and development has been an integral part of the international system since the creation of the United Nations, although its significance and size have changed over the years. The CGIAR, for example, played an important role developing new crop varieties to meet the food needs of the developing world. It is role, however, has been under constant review as its funding has declined. Despite these challenges, the CGIAR and other international institutions continue to undertake research of relevance to developing countries. In order to support decision making, these institutions are seeking to enhance their science advice mechanisms. They are particularly seeking to strengthen their scientific credibility by strengthening peer-review mechanisms and widening the base for scientific input.
Monitoring, assessing, and reporting
Various agencies of the United Nations have long tracked the environmental impacts of human activities, as part of their general role of monitoring trends, undertaking assessments, and reporting on progress. For example, monitoring of radio nucleotides arising from atmospheric testing of nuclear tests started in 1955 under the auspices of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNCSEAR).
This work was based on data collected from a network of stations positioned around the world. It marked one of the earliest United Nations efforts to monitor anthropogenic environmental impacts. In 1963 the WMO launched the World Weather Watch, which formed one of the earliest networks for monitoring, processing, and reporting weather-related information (Gosovic, 1992). Since then, WMO has emerged as a key backbone of the global environmental monitoring system and has provided much of the basic data that have informed major international environmental policies (Davies, 1990).
Other institutions also monitor technological development, especially for purposes of setting performance and safety standards. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ICAO, and the ITU operate largely through national and regional institutional networks to set standards and make rules. WIPO, whose functions are limited to intellectual property information, also monitors and articulates trends in technology.
In the field of environmental management, the function of monitoring technological development is currently restricted to a few institutions working on specific technical problems such as developing substitutes for ozone-depleting substances. The ozone regime has a strong scientific and technological basis and includes a mechanism for providing financial assistance to countries to phase out ozone-depleting substances.
On the whole, the United Nations system has developed elaborate mechanisms for monitoring, assessing, and reporting on environmental trends. The system relies on a complex network of international, regional, and national institutions that collect environmental data. It also relies heavily on networks or epistemic communities that focus on specific areas of research (Haas, 1992). Institutions such as the International Council for Science (ICSU) have played an important role in supporting these networks. But with the emergence of the Internet and other communications technologies, a wide range of epistemic communities have emerged and are functioning without the support of coordinating organizations. The monitoring of technological developments, however, has not received as much attention in the United Nations system as have advances in environmental research.
The United Nations has an elaborate system for monitoring, assessing, and reporting environmental trends. Much of the information generated through these activities has had a significant impact on the emergence of the international environmental regimes. Not only has the information been used in setting new agendas and promoting international consensus, but also these systems are key to promoting compliance with environmental commitments. These activities are therefore important sources of information that feed into the various international science advice activities within the UN system.
Operations, technical assistance, and technology transfer
From project implementation to technical and financial assistance, international agencies take operational responsibility for social and economic issues such as development administration, children, refugees, food aid, environment, and population. UN technical assistance to developing countries over the years has been integral in these areas,
particularly as coordinated at the country level by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
An administrator, four deputy administrators, and a 36-member Executive Board that meets twice a year in regular session and once in special session oversee the largest program of the United Nations, UNDP. Its New York secretariat, along with offices in more than 130 countries, serves as its operational managers. Since reorganization of UNDP in 2000, a new financial instrument, the Thematic Trust Funds, has begun to finance UNDP projects. These funds enable donors to provide additional contributions for continuing work in specific UNDP practice areas. For the period 2001–2003, the energy trust has resources of $60 million, $51 million of which is allocated to country offices and $9 million to global and regional programs.
The energy trust of UNDP is managed by the Bureau for Development Policy (BDP), whose Sustainable Energy and Environment Division (SEED) carries out many of UNDP’s energy program activities. The Capacity 21 program implements the goals of Agenda 21. In addition to utilizing UNDP Sustainable Development Advisors, country staff, and government counterparts, Capacity 21 maintains a network of about 12 global and regional advisors and 15 bilateral donors. Capacity 21 works closely with the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), whose energy and transport office is made up of 14 energy experts and a network of 200 consultants. UNDP is the second largest implementer, after the World Bank, of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) climate change projects.
The Energy and Atmosphere Program (EAP) supports a Sustainable Energy Knowledge Network, an e-mail network open only to UNDP headquarters and country offices. The EAP, with the World Energy Council (WEC) and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), produced the World Energy Assessment for the 2001 meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-9). The report is also an informal input into WSSD in 2002. The World Energy Assessment evaluates the social, economic, environmental, and security issues linked to energy for every country and assesses the compatibility of different energy options with global objectives in these areas.
In addition to its operational programs, UNDP houses the Human Development Report Office (HDRO), which produces an annual report on a variety of themes related to human development. The Human Development Report is one of the most respected documents produced by the United Nations. It produces a ranking of the social and economic performance of countries based on a “Human Development Index.” Recently, the report has focused on science and technology issues. In 2001, the Human Development Report was devoted to “Making Technology Work for Human Development.” It outlined a wide range of policy options and helped to highlight the importance of science and technology for development. The staff of the HDRO, aided by consultants, prepares the report. The draft report is reviewed by a team of experts and launched with extensive media coverage. The report is not reviewed by governments and is the exclusive responsibility of the HDRO.
The United Nations has also played a key role in technology cooperation among countries. It has over the decades paid special attention to the need to transfer technology
from the developed to the developing countries, especially for meeting human needs. This function is carried out through sectoral agencies dealing with issues such as health, agriculture, and industrialization. In addition, the United Nations promotes the transfer of technology among developing countries under the label of South-South cooperation. This work is coordinated through the UNDP.
One of the most successful United Nations efforts in technology transfer is the promotion of technologies that reduce the release of ozone-depleting substances (Tolba, 1998; Benedick, 1991; Litfin, 1994). This work is carried out though a complex network of institutions associated with the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, and the Multilateral Fund set up to support technology transfer. The ozone regime has become a source of inspiration for the design of technology transfer programs. Its work is guided by the Technical and Economic Panel (Parson, Forthcoming; UNEP, 1999). One of the main reasons for the effectiveness of the UN in the ozone regime is the flexible institutional arrangement that promotes interactions between policy and science while maintaining the credibility of the latter. The ozone regime relied on leading experts and extensive peer-review procedures. In addition, the technical panels were broad in geographical coverage as well as in the composition of disciplines. The panels also relied on input from a wide range of constituencies, including government, industry, academia, and civil society. The panels cultivated an atmosphere of trust that enabled decisions to be guided by scientific consensus. Much of this was possible because of the existence of institutional structures that allow for scientific consensus building.
Another example of UN-based technology transfer activities is the work of the International Centre for Science and High Technology (ICS) set up in 1988 as an autonomous organ of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The aim of ICS is to promote sustainable industrial development through transfer of know-how and technology to developing and transition-economy countries. It carries out its activities through training courses, workshops, seminars, expert meetings, and project design. ICS works closely with small and medium-sized enterprises. It focuses on advancing the industrial competitiveness and investment climate by promoting technological innovation, building capacity, and promoting international cooperation. UNIDO has also set numerous other research and development programs in partnership with national governments.
Programs of the United Nations system are engaged in a wide range of operations that involve decisions on allocation of resources. Only a small proportion of these decisions are supported by systematic science advice. Although much of the technical knowledge needed for decision making is provided as part of the design and implementation of the various projects, there are no systematic institutional mechanisms and procedures within the organization to support and the advice provided. This is particularly critical for organizations whose mandate involves dealing with development issues that require considerable input from the scientific and technological community. There are notable efforts to improve the functioning science advisory institutions where they exist. The improvements focus on enhancing scientific credibility (through measures such as peer review and inclusion of the social sciences) and introducing institutional improvements to support greater interaction between science and policy.
The reforms identified above show the growing efforts of United Nations organs to balance scientific credibility with policy involvement. These findings are consistent with evidence from the literature (on whaling, land-based marine pollution, air pollution, ozone depletion, and climate change) that shows that science advice mechanisms function most effectively where a balance between scientific credibility and policy involvement has been achieved (Andresen, Skodvin, Underdal, and Wettestad, 2000). This conclusion derives from a broader empirical base (covering dumping, radioactive waste, fisheries, ozone depletion, land-based marine pollution, air pollution, satellite communication, nuclear nonproliferation, regional seas, trade in endangered species, whaling, and marine living resources) that shows the interactions between knowledge and institutional capacity to be the most important factor explaining effectiveness in environmental regimes (Underdal, 2002; Miles et al., 2002).