Structure of Science Advice in the United Nations System Today
The chapter aims at surveying and analyzing institutional arrangements for science advice in key organs of the United Nations. The functioning of the United Nations system is guided largely by considerations of geographical equity based on the five regions of the United Nations. Even where United Nations offices operate as subsidiary organs with a limited number of country representatives, the principle of geographical equity still applies. Existing procedures for providing advice are also guided by this equity principle. However, over the years, the United Nations has been increasingly expanding the use of science advice in decision making and introducing institutional adjustments that seek to balance scientific integrity and interaction between policy and science. This chapter analyzes trends by reviewing activities in the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General, functional commissions, programs, conventions, specialized agencies, processes and conferences, allied activities, and non-state actors. The focus of this chapter is to identify efforts made in the various organs to improve the use of science advice for decision making.
Office of the United Nations Secretary-General
The Office of the Secretary-General plays an important role in setting the tone for the functioning of the United Nations system. The Charter of the United Nations designates the Secretary-General as the “chief administrative officer” of the organization whose duties include carrying out activities entrusted to him or her by the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, and other United Nations organs. The Charter also empowers the Secretary-General to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” Carrying out this mandate involves keeping abreast of the latest international developments and working with member states to respond to the emerging challenges.
Many of the reports that the Secretary-General prepares for the various organs to which he is accountable require considerable scientific and technical input. For example, in April 2000, in preparation for the September 2000 Millennium Summit, the largest-ever gathering of heads of State or Government, the Secretary-General issued a report entitled, We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century. This was the most comprehensive projection of the UN’s mission since its inception and called on
governments to commit themselves to a 15-year program of work that addresses issues such as poverty, environment, conflict, and violence. The report dealt with policy issues such as information technology, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals. The summit adopted the Millennium Declaration that set out a series of development goals that cannot be met without extensive scientific and technological input. Determining how to meet these goals will require knowledge of trends in science and technology.
The Secretary-General regularly convenes, at the request of governments, major international conferences and summits that are aimed at guiding international action on emerging issues. Many of these summits deal with issues that cannot be adequately addressed with effective science advice. The preparatory process for WSSD offers an illustration of the complex role of science and technology in global governance and the need for systematic institutional arrangements for science advice. Agenda 21 articulates the role of science and technology in two distinct ways. First, it recognizes the important role played by the scientific and technological community as a major stakeholder (as outlined in Chapter 31 of Agenda 21). The International Council for Science coordinated the input of this community into the preparatory process for WSSD in cooperation with the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO) and the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the InterAcademy Panel (IAP), and the International Social Science Council (ISSC). The contributions of the scientific and technological community were directed at government negotiators through submissions to the preparatory meetings.
Second, Agenda 21 recognized science and technology as being one of the means for implementing sustainable development (together with finance, human resources, and capacity building). This operational aspect of science and technology has not received as much attention as other themes. It is notable that the United Nations Secretary-General’s choice of five priority areas—water, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity—was partly influenced by the availability of a large body of scientific and technical knowledge in those fields (Juma, 2002b). Assessments of the role of science and technology in the implementation of sustainable development goals in these five areas can play an important role in identifying opportunities for actions. The existence of science advice capacity in United Nations organs that convene summits and major conferences would help in determining the need for and modalities for such assessments.
Furthermore, the Secretary-General is increasingly being requested by the Security Council to address new threats to international security, such as health, whose effective management requires access to the best available scientific and technical knowledge. Other emerging science-based issues that will require the involvement of the Secretary-General include environmental management. This prognosis suggests that enhancing the capacity of the Office of the Secretary-General to serve governments will involve greater reliance on scientific and technical information (Juma, 2000). This is particularly important, as the role of science in international governance is becoming an explicit part of international diplomacy (Juma, 2002a).
The Secretary-General has recently introduced a number of measures aimed at strengthening the functioning of his office. The appointment of a Deputy Secretary-General provides managerial backstopping and allows the Secretary-General to focus on diplomatic and other functions. Additionally, the Secretary-General has established an
office of strategic planning that helps to mobilize external knowledge for agenda setting. The creation of capacity for strategic planning in the office of the Secretary-General is a natural starting point to consider the role of scientific and technical information in the world’s highest diplomatic office.
Science advice may also play a role in helping the Secretary-General bring policy consensus to the various activities of the United Nations that fall directly under his purview. This opportunity is provided by his role as chair of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), the successor body to the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC). The CEB brings together the executive heads of 27 member organizations, including UN funds, programs, and specialized agencies, the WTO, and the Bretton Woods institutions (including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund). The functioning of this body could be supported by science advice on emerging and persistent issues of global importance. Such advice could provide a basis for collective international responses by the UN system.
The office of the Secretary-General and its analogues in other international organizations plays a central role in supporting overall governance of international affairs. As shown below, a science advisor has previously served the Secretary-General. This office was abolished in favor of a more representative committee structure. Although a committee structure may serve the needs of individual government delegations, it is not a good substitute for strengthened capacity in the office of the Secretary-General to use science advice in decision making. Building such capacity as part of strategic thinking will enable the Secretary-General to better support the various deliberative bodies.
The United Nations, through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), has set up regional commissions to carry out social and development activities in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, and Western Asia. There are also functional commissions dealing with human rights, narcotic drugs, crime prevention, science and technology, the status of women, sustainable development, population, and statistics. The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and the Committee on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) are the most relevant for purposes of this study. These commissions rely on a wide variety of advisory inputs, most of which are provided through consultancy reports that are not subjected to any systematic procedures or reviews. In addition to these categories of commissions, the United Nations also operates commissions whose activities relate directly to the management of natural resources.
Established in 1992 as a subsidiary body of ECOSOC, the CSTD is mandated to provide the UN with reliable analysis and policy recommendations and to design effective implementation measures on relevant S&T issues. Certain Commission functions were revised in 1998, as ECOSOC reviewed the membership, focus, and operations of the CSTD (Juma, 2002a).
Through current CSTD work, S&T issues of concern to the UN are studied, particularly related to (a) the role of the science and technology in development; (b) science and technology policy, especially in respect to developing countries; and (c) science and
technology matters within the United Nations system. Thirty-three member states are elected by ECOSOC to the CSTD for a period of four years: eight members from Africa; seven from Asia; six from Latin America and the Caribbean; four from Eastern Europe; and eight from Western Europe, North America, and other related states. Nominated by these governments to the Commission are experts with the necessary knowledge and qualifications. Commission priorities are those most central to the United Nations thus far, such as information technology and biotechnology (Juma, 2002a).
At each session, the Commission elects a Bureau (a chairperson and four vice-chairpersons) for the next session. A Bureau elected each session by the Commission manages all activities between sessions, establishing ad hoc panels or working groups to analyze substantive issues chosen for each intersessional period. These panels and groups are nominated and invited by Commission members to take responsibility for the reports, prepared by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) secretariat and presented to the Commission at its regular session (Juma, 2002a).
Although the CSTD has undertaken a number of activities aimed at advising developing countries on issues related to information technology and biotechnology, it is too early to judge the impact of the efforts. Equally important is the long-term role of the CSTD in influencing the agenda of its host institution, UNCTAD, or being able to contribute to the functioning of other United Nations commissions, especially the CSD. Governments continue to be interested in finding ways of enhancing the effectiveness of the Commission, especially in light of the fact that it is the only organ of ECOSOC that is charged with explicit responsibilities for advice on issues related to science and technology.
Responsibility for monitoring the implementation of Agenda 21 rests with the CSD. More specifically, the CSD was established in 1993 as a functional commission of ECOSOC to: (a) monitor progress in the implementation of Agenda 21 and activities related to the integration of environmental and developmental goals throughout the United Nations system through analysis and evaluation of reports from all relevant organs, organizations, programs, and institutions of the United Nations system dealing with various issues of environment and development, including those related to finance; (b) consider information provided by governments, for example, in the form of periodic communications or national reports regarding the activities they undertake to implement Agenda 21, the problems they face, such as problems related to financial resources and technology transfer, and other environment and development issues they find relevant; and (c) review the progress in the implementation of the commitments set forth in Agenda 21, including those related to the provision of financial resources and transfer of technology.
The CSD has served largely as a continuation of UNCED, and much of its work was carried out through diplomatic negotiations (Wagner, 1999; Chasek, 2001a). Little effort was made to review the implications of the mandate—especially monitoring functions—for the secretariat that supports the CSD. The CSD has been effective as a body that brings governments together to pursue negotiations on specific aspects of Agenda 21. But this function has dominated its work, and little effort has gone into using scientific input to monitor the implementation of Agenda 21. As part of the preparations for the World
Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) the scientific community, operating through ICSU, has recommended that the CSD establish an office of science advice. This recommendation is in part based on the view that the CSD cannot effectively implement its monitoring role without building capacity for addressing scientific and technological issues.
Both commissions have been undergoing internal reform. First, governments have been concerned about the effectiveness of the CSD in its role as an organ that monitors the implementation of Agenda 21. The main innovation in the functioning of the CSD, however, has been the introduction of stakeholder dialogues aimed at enriching intergovernmental negotiations with additional information provided by non-state actors (Correll, 1999b). The focus for reform has therefore been on presentation and broader participation of the various stakeholders in intergovernmental processes. Little attention has been paid to improving the quality of information used in deliberations. Reforms in the CSTD, on the other hand, have focused on improving the functioning of its expert groups to improve the quality of the information provided. However, despite these reforms, much of the analytical work is still carried out by the secretariat. Efforts to engage the scientific community are still nascent and are implemented largely through workshops. Future reforms in bodies might involve increasing interactions between science and diplomacy in the CSTD and enhancing the technical credibility of information provided for decision making in the CSD.
Much of the operational work of the United Nations is carried out through programs with activities in specified sectoral or multisectoral areas, such as trade, development, refugees, children, drug control, volunteers, food, environment, population, relief, and human settlement. The UNEP is one of the most science-intensive organs in the system, although a large proportion of its work is devoted to conference diplomacy. The organization has played a leading role in linking science to diplomacy, and a large number of institutional innovations in this field have been inspired or nurtured by the organization. It deals with all aspects of the environment, including water. The UNEP’s principal objective is to provide information and assessments to the broad international community and ultimately to the CSD for aggregation and policy decisions. A great portion of UNEP’s work is scientific and technical in nature, intended to generate knowledge on environmental management and sustainable development.
UNEP acts as the convener for a number of scientific advisory groups, such as the Ecosystem Conservation Group (ECG), the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environment Protection (GESAMP).
Box 4.1: Science advice for marine resources conservation
Sound decisions in the field of marine conservation depend on the availability of high-quality and reliable scientific information. To be useful in global and regional programs, this information must be gathered from experts from all corners of the globe, and it must be collected and presented in a consistent way. This is why in 1969 the UN system created GESAMP, made up of scientists from all regions who serve in their individual capacities. Its purpose is to: (1) respond to requests for advice on specific scientific questions submitted by sponsoring organizations; (2) prepare periodic reviews of the state of the marine environment regarding marine pollution; and (3) identify problems that require special attention or programs. The regular sessions of GESAMP have produced a large number of reports and studies relating to marine pollution problems, covering a wide range of topics of relevance to marine environmental policy over more than 30 years.
Working groups of experts selected by the organizations sponsoring GESAMP carry out the work of GESAMP. More than 750 experts have participated in the work of GESAMP’s 32 working groups. The coordination of GESAMP is provided by a joint secretariat of the sponsoring organizations. At present, UNEP is the sole sponsor of all nine presently active GESAMP working groups and subgroups. Recently, a GESAMP subcommittee raised the issue of the lack of a global body on oceans to receive their advice and proposed a new informal consultative process in the General Assembly. The committee claimed that concerns about GESAMP’s effectiveness were not due to GESAMP’s own working methods but rather to the lack of a consolidated cross-sectoral process to carry forward its advice to the intergovernmental level.
UNEP also has historically worked closely with specialized agencies of the United Nations and other technical bodies by utilizing its convening power on environmental issues. One of UNEP’s most enduring contributions to global environmental governance has been its record in mobilizing scientific and technical knowledge to support international environmental norm setting. These efforts have generally culminated in conventions, action plans and strategies, research agendas, and political declarations. In addition, science advice mobilized through UNEP has been used to support decisions in other bodies dealing with environment-related issues (Tolba, 1998).
Science advice in UNEP is provided through a variety of arrangements depending on specific needs. The most dominant mode has been the use of expert committees and groups that are convened by the Executive Director, who in turn serves as a knowledge broker linking science to policy. Acting within the limits of the mandate provided to it at the 1972 Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, UNEP made effective use of its agenda-setting responsibilities to bring science to bear on international environmental policy (Gosovic, 1992; Tolba, 1998). The quality of leadership, especially in its capacity to manage the policy and science worlds, played an important role in the capacity of the organization to serve as a knowledge broker (Cheyes and Cheyes, 1995). UNEP successes in areas such as environmental protection
of regional seas can be traced to its capacity to bring scientific and technical knowledge to bear on decision making and action.
The quality of the leadership would not have expressed itself effectively without the support of a competent secretariat that provided continuity and administrative support for the organization and member states. Indeed, UNEP has over the years emerged as the secretariat of several international conventions dealing with issues such as biological diversity, ozone depletion, persistent organic pollutants, chemical pollution, hazardous waste, migratory species, and trade in endangered species. In addition, UNEP hosts a number of scientific assessments dealing with themes such as international waters and ecosystems. The provision of science advice for international policy making thus has coevolved with the growth and strengthening of secretariat functions.
Programs of the UN play a key role in implementing operational action plans. This is done directly or though partnerships. In some cases, hybrid institutions such as the GEF have been created. The GEF was established in 1991 to provide financial assistance to meet the incremental costs associated with the implementation of global environmental commitments. It operates with UNDP, UNEP, and the World Bank as its implementing agencies. The GEF, which has a triennial budget of over $2 billion, promotes international cooperation, supports actions to protect the global environment, and provides funds to developing countries and those with economies in transition for projects and activities in one or more of four focal areas: biological diversity, climate change, international waters, and the ozone layer. It has recently added desertification and control of chemical pollution to its funding priorities. Science advice to the GEF is provided through the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) that is administered by UNEP. UNEP provides the STAP Secretariat and performs liaison functions between the Facility and STAP. The Panel is comprised of 12 persons appointed by the executive director of UNEP in consultation with UNDP, the World Bank, and the GEF Secretariat.
The STAP mandate, as approved by the GEF Council in October 1995, includes: (a) strategic advice as a means to advance a better understanding of issues of the global environment and how to address them; (b) the development and maintenance of a roster of experts; (c) elective review of projects; (d) cooperation and coordination with the scientific and technical bodies of conventions; and (e) providing a forum for integrating science and technology and acting as link between the GEF and the wider scientific and technical community.
STAP has so far carried out a variety of assessments that range from reviewing individual projects and providing advice on the extent to which they conform to the mandate of the GEF to providing general advice to the organization on how to deal with new issues such as support for research-related activities. Its visibility and impact, however, have been overshadowed by the activities of the implementing agencies of the GEF, as well as the GEF secretariat, with their own dynamics and methods for securing science advice. The GEF remains one of the most important sources of dedicated funding for sustainable development activities in the fields of water, energy, fisheries, and oceans through its support for activities in the fields of biodiversity, climate change, international waters, and land degradation.
STAP has on the whole not fully realized its potential for a variety of reasons. First, all its members are appointed and retire at the same time. This practice does not foster continuity, and as a result STAP has not been able to foster a collective identity. Second, it does not interact on a regular basis with the GEF secretariat, which is a key reference point for its operations. Third, although it maintains its autonomy, it does not interact actively with the political process except through occasional participation in meetings. Finally, STAP has had little opportunity to embark on major studies aimed at giving long-term strategic advice to the GEF beyond the constraints of existing operational priorities. This limitation may be linked to the fact that the GEF itself is reconstituted every three years. Such short time horizons would serve as a disincentive for long-term strategic thinking (GEF, 2002).
STAP could play an important role in shaping the direction of support for these activities and strengthening scientific contributions to the GEF, but doing this will require some changes in the mandate, procedures, and staffing of STAP to enable it to make full use of the experts on its roster. It will take the strengthening of its secretariat, whose executive secretary could function as the de facto science advisor to the GEF, with more direct and regular contacts with the GEF secretariat itself. Furthermore, its studies, especially on major areas that affect the allocation of resources in the organization, would need to be undertaken in a manner that gives them the requisite legitimacy, credibility, and relevance to emerging international concerns.
On-going discussions on the need to reform STAP illustrate two important trends. First, they address issues related to the credibility of the science advice provided. For example, STAP maintains a roster of experts who are in theory called upon to review GEF documents. However, the roster has not been fully utilized. This concern is not unique to STAP. Rosters have been set up under other bodies, especially conventions, with similar capacity utilization concerns. Equally critical are issues related to the effective use of scientific and technical information generated by STAP. This can be enhanced by more systematic interactions between STAP and the policy-making organs of the GEF. Enhancing scientific credibility and facilitating interactions between science and policy will require strengthening the STAP secretariat and formulating rules that reflect the new challenges.
There are over 200 regional and international conventions that deal with the environment and sustainable development. These conventions provide a wealth of accumulated experience on the relationships between science and international politics (Bolin, 1994; Underdal, 2000). This experience shows that successful cases of science advice entail institutional arrangements that grant intellectual autonomy on the one hand and allow interactions between science and policy making on the other (Skodvin and Underdal, 2000). Achieving this requires careful consideration of the institutional arrangements for science advice as well as other relevant factors like leadership and knowledge brokerage capabilities (Skodvin, 2000).
Conventions are an interesting institutional arrangement because they seek to be internally consistent and coherent. They express this through the design of their internal organs to reflect their specific functions. Having all the necessary subsidiary organs under one institutional structure helps to facilitate feedback and internal learning. The continuing efforts to improve science advice in the various conventions are an illustration of this social learning process (The Social Learning Group, 2001a; The Social Learning Group, 2001b). There is also considerable transfer of lessons among the conventions, and experiences gained under one treaty are becoming the basis for improvements in others. Government delegates and secretariat staff seeking consistency among the functions of the various international institutions often affect the knowledge transfer. Other sources of procedural consistency include the use of United Nations rules of procedure (Kaufman, 1996; Boyer, 2000).
Most of these conventions were negotiated on the basis of evidence of environmental degradation provided through scientific research. These conventions fall into broad categories covering issues such as atmosphere (including energy use), biological diversity (including forests, aquatic, and marine life), oceans and marine resources, land use change (including desertification and freshwater resources), and chemicals.
Most of the conventions deal with specific environmental issues; examples are the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Others, however, are broad in scope and deal with sustainable development issues. These include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Most of the global environmental and sustainable development conventions were negotiated and ratified in the last three decades.
The conventions use a variety of science advice approaches. CITES and Ramsar, for example, rely on small expert groups for science and technology advice. Each of these groups consists of a small number of experts selected on the basis of regional representation. The groups are responsible for identifying and facilitating the research for scientific and technological questions that arise in connection with the specific issue. In contrast, the Basel Convention, CBD, CCD, and UNFCCC all rely on open advisory bodies for science advice. In this scenario, all parties are free to appoint experts from different sectors. These bodies typically convene working groups and ad hoc expert committees to fulfill the identified science and technology advisory goals. CBD and UNFCCC also have established rosters of experts to assist the open advisory bodies in their tasks (Fritz, 2000).
The establishment of the IPCC in 1988 marked a significant step in defining a science and technology advisory mechanism to assess the issues related to climate change. The creation of this panel was an example of foresight on the part of the World Meteorological Organization and UNEP. It was created before the UNFCCC was completed and adopted. The first assessment report of the IPCC was one of the main resources for the designers of the UNFCCC (Agrawala, 1998a).
The IPCC is notable for its semi-autonomous nature within the greater bounds of the UN at large. Its main body, the IPCC Bureau, is comprised of representatives of member governments. This group is responsible for choosing the IPCC chair, a technical expert in a field related to climate change. The Chair assists the Bureau in devising the IPCC initiatives and assigning the designated investigations to a set of working groups. The working groups and task forces that represent the other main part of the IPCC are divided by theme. Each working group is responsible for researching and reporting on the set of inquiries handed down from the Bureau. The members of the working groups are experts from a wide range of disciplines, including earth and atmospheric sciences, technology, economics, and social sciences, and are chosen by members of the IPCC Bureau. To accomplish the tasks assigned to them, members of the working groups evaluate existing data, initiate new research, and consult with ad hoc commissions. Their findings are then returned to the IPCC Bureau for review and eventual dissemination (Agrawala, 1998b).
The IPCC produces reports that address the scientific understanding of climate change, environmental, economic, and social impacts, and possible mitigation steps. Reports are in the form of assessments, technical reviews, and special reports. The IPCC also publishes its methodologies and supporting material. The IPCC has been responsible for three assessment reports since its inception. The third, published in 2001, included segments on the scientific basis, potential impact, regional vulnerability, and mitigation priorities for climate change. Examples of IPCC special reports are: Aviation and the Global Atmosphere, published in 1999, and Emissions Scenarios, published in 2000. Technical papers have included Implications of Proposed CO2Emissions Limitations, released in 1997, and Technologies, Policies and Measures for Mitigating Climate Change, released in 1996.
Box 4.2: Review process for IPCC reports
The production and review of IPCC reports includes the following steps:
Governments provide Bureau members and collectively decide on cochairs. The process of choosing individuals for other functions (working groups, authors, reviewers, etc.) is overseen by the governments, via the Bureau.
The working groups, the members of which rely on experts and ad hoc committees for the most up-to-date and accurate information, write a report.
The report is then sent to substantive editors who review the content and accuracy of the working groups’ findings.
The edited reports are sent out to experts in the field for peer review.
The peer-reviewed reports are sent to each country on the IPCC Bureau for individual review.
After this review process, the report is sent to the Bureau for a final review and acceptance or rejection.
The IPCC Secretariat publishes and disseminates the final product for general consumption.
Over time, the IPCC has shifted its focus slightly to include matters of economics and the social ramifications of climate change, in addition to the scientific causes and effects. There has been a genuine effort on the part of the IPCC chairs and Bureaus to take a multidisciplinary approach to investigating climate change. They are including more stakeholders in their activities, with the inclusion of various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in their research and review processes. The IPCC has attempted to become more diverse, as well, and has made many efforts to ensure equal representation from northern and southern countries, including the election of two coordinating lead authors for each report chapter-one from the North and one from the South. Periodic reassessments and revisions are key activities in the effective maintenance of the IPCC.
IPCC stands out as a remarkable innovation in science advice in the United Nations system. However, a number of concerns continue to be voiced, especially by developing countries. The IPCC illustrates the strengths and difficulties of integration of science advice with policy making. First, the fact that IPCC studies rely on peer-reviewed research for 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, and this has prompted interest in helping to build research capacity in developing countries.
The IPCC processes that allow for interactions between scientists and policy makers help to reduce these concerns, but the pressure to help strengthen research capacity in developing countries continues to be a central theme in IPCC activities. These concerns are not unique to IPCC and continue to bedevil fields such as biological diversity research. For example, Diversitas, ICSU’s research program on biological diversity, is built largely on research networks in industrialized countries with the hope that over time the program will expand to include more developing country teams. But despite these concerns, IPCC’s role as a leading example of science advice in the United Nations system remains unparalleled.
The importance of ensuring that science advice is conducted through the appropriate institutional arrangements is illustrated by the case of the Global Biodiversity Assessment. In 1995, the steering committee of the Global Biodiversity Assessment (GBA) released its report together with a summary for policy makers. The 1,140-page study was hailed as the most comprehensive analysis of the science of biological diversity ever carried out, the culmination of two years of research and data collection (Heywood and Watson, 1995). Funded by the GEF and UNEP, the independent assessment was the product of over 1,500 scientists and experts from all parts of the world, including over 300 authors. The text of the assessment was peer reviewed for scientific accuracy in an elaborate process that was unprecedented in the biodiversity community. The final product was a comprehensive assessment of the state of knowledge of the characteristics, magnitude, distribution, and function of biodiversity as well as the costs and benefits of anthropogenic influences. It was intended to serve as a basis for science advice for the CBD in a manner analogous to the role of IPCC reports in the UNFCCC process.
But despite the effort that went into preparing the report and ensuring that the best available scientific knowledge was utilized, the CBD did not receive it with enthusiasm and declined to offer an outright endorsement. The parties to the CBD deemed the report to be an externally generated document that they had not expressly asked for. This
concern, however, masked critical issues related to the interactions between science and policy. The GBA process was initiated before the CBD came into force, and as a result there was no interaction between the scientific community that prepared the report and the policy making body of the CBD.
Policy makers were particularly concerned about undue influence over the future of the CBD through the work of the GBA. They were also concerned that the creation of the GBA was likely to undermine the functioning of the SBSTTA. The concerns were reinforced by the perception that the GBA reflected the conservation agenda articulated by industrialized countries and was not in keeping with the overall spirit of the CBD. “The overall framing of the assessment centers on the convention’s first objective, conservation of biological diversity. The second object, sustainable use of its components, is discussed, yet annexed to the conservation theme. The convention’s third objective, however—the ‘fair and equitable sharing of the benefits’ of the use of biodiversity—is almost entirely ignored” (Biermann, 2002, p. 208).
The GBA’s lack of impact arose largely from the fact that the process of building scientific consensus, which is equally critical in the field of biological diversity, did not benefit from interactions with the policy-making organs of the CBD. This is not to say that such interactions would have automatically resulted in the acceptance of the report. What this case shows is that there is a need for proximity between the process of building scientific consensus on the one hand and the policy context on the other. The IPCC process is different from the GBA because it predated the UNFCCC. As shown elsewhere in this report, there is considerable interaction between the two processes. The story of the GBA raises fundamental questions about future independent assessments such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that have tacit support from the governing bodies of various conventions but are subject to uncertain procedures on how the assessment and political processes interact, especially on issues that are dominated by geopolitical differences between the industrialized and developing countries (Biermann, 2000).
The UNFCCC, CBD, and UNCCD have analogous internal science advice organs and follow similar procedures. The main difference between them is that the UNFCCC relies considerably on independent input provided by IPCC. The other two do not enjoy such support, and the relevance of establishing IPCC-like bodies continues to be a question of considerable debate. An examination of science advice under the CBD illustrates the opportunities and challenges in sustainable development conventions (Juma and Henne, 1997). Article 25 of the CBD established SBSTTA to: (a) provide scientific and technical assessments of the status of biological diversity; (b) prepare scientific and technical assessments of the effects of types of measures taken in accordance with the provisions of this Convention; (c) identify innovative, efficient, state-of-the-art technologies and know-how relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and advise on the ways and means of promoting development and transferring such technologies; (d) provide advice on scientific programs and international cooperation in research and development related to conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity; and (e) respond to scientific, technical, technological, and methodological questions that the Conference of the Parties (COP) and its subsidiary bodies may put to the body.
On a regular basis, this body reports to the COP for CBD through a chair who is elected by the COP on the basis of geographical rotation. A Bureau of 10 country representatives similarly elected supports the chair. The COP designates the goals and guidelines for the SBSTTA. All of the rules and regulations that guide the work of the SBSTTA are outlined in a comprehensive modus operandi, developed on the basis of experiences in other United Nations bodies. The SBSTTA often calls on experts in the field as well as ad hoc groups to respond to questions that are posed to it by the COP. The Secretariat of the CBC maintains a roster of experts designated by governments on a variety of topics. There are now 17 rosters of experts from which the Secretariat can draw when constituting ad hoc panels. The modus operandi also provides for the creation of liaison groups that can work directly with the executive secretary in developing documentation for SBSTTA meetings. The modus operandi takes into account the role of nongovernmental organizations and other relevant bodies in providing scientific and technical input.
The SBSTTA is an open-ended body whose membership is similar to that of the governing body, the Conference of the Parties (COP). The COP decides on what kind of science advice it requires. This is then presented as papers prepared by the staff of the Secretariat and in some cases with input from governmental and nongovernmental experts who operate through liaison groups established by the Secretariat. The papers are considered by the SBSTTA, and its recommendations are presented to the COP for consideration. In addition, the SBSTTA also hears presentations by independent experts. Although the CBD has increased the participation of the scientific community in its deliberations over time, there is room for improvement of the functioning of the science advice processes. For example, there is no distinction between documents prepared to elaborate on routine issues that are already part of the work program and those on areas of major international concern that demand a broader base for scientific input. Such issues could be the subject of more systematic consideration through assessments that could be organized along the lines of the functioning of the IPCCC.
However, pursuing this approach would require changes in the way the convention functions. For example, it would require putting in place procedures that are more elaborate than those used at the moment. Second, such an approach may entail reliance on outside bodies through a process of delegation that is consistent with the modus operandi of the SBSTTA. In fact, the SBSTTA already relies to a large extent on input from other bodies and could set guidelines for the way these organizations prepare their input to reflect the requirements of legitimacy, credibility, and salience. Such a move would entail strengthening the capacity of the office that deals with scientific and technological affairs in the secretariat.
On the whole, the CBD continues to make efforts to improve the functioning of its science advice system, but the structure has not allowed for a balance between scientific credibility and policy involvement. The convention processes have placed a higher premium on policy involvement than on the need to improve the scientific credibility of the reports on which advice is provided. The incremental measures adopted through revisions of the modus operandi have fallen short of the need to embark on major assessments on key areas such as marine and coastal biodiversity, forests, agriculture, and freshwater. This is in turn a consequence of political considerations among governments
and their hesitation to subject to international scrutiny areas that they consider strategic. Similarly, political considerations contributed to the reluctance to undertake biosafety assessments as a basis for negotiating the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (which is discussed elsewhere in this report). Given such political sensitivities, it may be useful for the CBD to rely on external bodies under specific guidelines that promote credibility, legitimacy, and salience. The basis for such delegation already exists. For example, the convention’s financial mechanism is implemented by the GEF.
Several other conventions are also involved in efforts to improve the functioning of their science advice organs and processes with a focus on seeking a balance between scientific credibility and policy involvement. For example, the Ramsar Convention has in recent years been improving the functioning of its Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP). One of the reforms aimed at promoting the autonomy of the panel was a decision of the contracting parties to the convention requiring STRP members to serve in their personal capacity and not as representatives of their countries of origin. The convention is also considering other measures that would seek to strengthen the review process under the STRP. The eighth meeting of the contracting parties scheduled for November 2002 will consider proposals that include detailed procedures aimed at making the STRP more credible, transparent, and efficient (Ramsar Bureau, 2002). The proposals recognize that improving the effectiveness of science advice is largely dependent on the nature and character of institutional arrangements designed to support the process.
Experience in the functioning of conventions shows the tension between the need to improve scientific credibility through independent processes that allow for peer review and the need to enhance interactions between science and policy. At the extreme level, government representatives selected to serve on scientific and technical bodies also participate on the governing bodies. This is a common phenomenon in open-ended bodies. This overlap may help to ensure that the recommendations of the advisory bodies are adopted by the governing bodies, a feature that may be seen as an indicator of effectiveness; however, it masks more serious problems related to the credibility of the science advice provided. Measures to address this concern include indicating that individuals cannot serve on both bodies or requiring that representatives to scientific and technical bodies serve in their personal capacity and not as officials of their governments. Such measures are complemented by strong peer review procedures.
Another important area of reform has been the recognition of indigenous or traditional knowledge as a source of input into science advice. The CBD, for example, explicitly recognizes the value of traditional knowledge in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Similarly, the CCD emphasizes the role of traditional knowledge as a key element in its operations. Also related to the broadening of the knowledge base is the role of non-state actors in international environmental governance (Correll, 1999). The participation of these groups, as well as the business community, has helped to widen the base for scientific and technical input. These efforts have also gone hand in hand with the strengthening of the secretariats of international organizations to support the participation of these groups.
The world’s scientific expertise resides mainly in the industrialized countries, and the process of science advice is most advanced in these countries as well. A call for the best known experts with experience on expert committees providing science advice in most
fields is likely to find more candidates from the industrialized countries and few from developing nations. Such an imbalance could affect the legitimacy of science advice provided by such groups. Indeed, there are a number of cases—for example, in the field of desertification control—where nongovernmental organizations with limited scientific and technical expertise had greater influence on negotiating processes than scientific committees (Correll, 1999a). In these cases the fact that the committees were made up largely of scientists from industrialized countries undermined the legitimacy of the outputs of the committees. Seeking to strengthen science advice at the international level will involve similar efforts at the national level in developing countries.
Promoting interactions between policy and science remains one of the key challenges in convention processes. Under the climate regime the science assessment process is independent of the convention. Interactions are facilitated through specific measures such as joint bureau meetings. Efforts to replicate this process in biodiversity-related conventions are still experimental. The MA is the most advanced effort to create science assessment mechanisms outside the convention process. It is too early to judge its impact. On the whole, the majority of efforts to improve the functioning of science advice in convention processes focus on enhancing scientific credibility through broadening the input base and introducing or strengthening the peer review processes. These measures have been easier to achieve than the more complex challenge of promoting interactions between science and policy while maintaining scientific credibility.
United Nations programs and funds represent some of the most influential global mechanisms for implementing sustainable development activities. The programs and funds deal with issues that require systematic use of the best available knowledge for decision making. The quality of decision making in their governing bodies can be strengthened through the provision of science advice. As shown above, many of the bodies are already exploring ways of strengthening their science advice activities. But doing so will require the establishment of internal mechanisms that coordinate science advice activities following the elements outlined in Chapter 2.
Much of the technical work of the United Nations is carried out through a number of specialized agencies dealing with issues such as labor, education, science, culture, food, agriculture, health, meteorology, telecommunications, postal services, intellectual property, development finance, civil aviation, and industrial development. Their functions are further divided into more specific areas, such as forestry and fisheries within agriculture.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is the principal international organization concerned with fisheries, and it governs the agreements aimed at improved coordination in this regime. A specialized organization of the United Nations system, FAO has nurtured a large and competent fisheries department under an assistant director-general. Administration and program review is exerted through the director-general and the intergovernmental bodies, such as the Committee on Fisheries (COFI). FAO has
established an Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research (ACFR) to deal with its internal research program and its relevance to support international fisheries objectives.
Box 4.3: Science advice for fisheries management
The Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research was first established in 1993 by the director-general of FAO. Its membership consists of scientists appointed in their own capacities by the director-general on the basis of their competence in the relevant disciplines and geographical distribution. Its main function is to study and to advise the director-general on the formulation and execution of FAO’s work on all aspects of fisheries research. Special attention is given to the fisheries aspects of oceanographic research and to the impact of environmental change on the sustainability of fisheries. The Committee also acts as the advisory body to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO on the fisheries aspects of oceanography.
Although the Committee is numerically small, consisting of only eight members, selection has been made to include the widest possible subject matter and geographical representation. The committee’s mandate includes conservation and management of marine and inland fishery resources, increasing fish productivity through enhancement of wild resources and through aquaculture, improving the means of converting fishery resources into human food, and studying the dynamics of fishing communities and the socioeconomic consequences of government fishery policies. This is an ambitious menu for a small committee that meets only for several days once a year. However, ACFR is permitted to establish working groups, subject to approval of the Director-General and availability of funds. So far, only one working group has been at work.
There are also a number of science advisory bodies serving the seven or so regional fisheries organizations. An early example was the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), established in 1902. A major part of the work of ICES is undertaken at the direct request of eight international regulatory commissions and national administrations for scientific information and advice on the conservation and management of fish and shellfish stocks, including the effects of pollution on the marine environment. This advisory function expanded significantly during the 1980s and has continued to do so. Today, ICES furnishes advice to international commissions, such as the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), the International Baltic Sea Fishery Commission (IBSFC), and the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization. In the fisheries field, ICES has its own advisory body, the Advisory Committee on Fishery Management (ACFM), which meets twice a year. Its findings and advice are supplied to member governments and fishery commissions and are subsequently published in the ICES Cooperative Research Report series.
Another area that is increasingly acquiring international attention is water. There are approximately 300 different agreements and treaties that relate to freshwater as a resource. A few of these have international applicability, such as the Convention of the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, the Ramsar
Convention involving the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands as regulators of water regimes and as habitats supporting a characteristic flora and fauna, and the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses of 1997.
UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP) is the only science and education program of the United Nations in the field of hydrology and water resources. It is a vehicle through which Member States can upgrade their knowledge of the water cycle and thereby increase their capacity to better manage and develop their water resources. IHP is governed by an Intergovernmental Council, and its secretariat, housed at the Division of Water Sciences of UNESCO, Paris, plays a catalytic role in the execution of the Program. The UNESCO regional offices, five of which have hydrologists, play an increasingly important role in implementation. Regional cooperation is an important aspect of IHP’s global program, and headquarters and the regional offices work closely with some 160 national committees and focal points in implementing its activities.
IHP was originally launched as the International Hydrological Decade (IHD) in 1965, and afterwards, as an international program. It has had a number of successive multiyear phases; the theme of the fifth phase, which extends from 1996 to 2001, is Hydrology and Water Resources Development in a Vulnerable Environment. IHP’s objectives are to stimulate a stronger interrelation among scientific research, application, and education. Emphasis is on environmentally sound integrated water resources planning and management, supported by a scientifically proven methodology. IHP also sponsors postgraduate hydrology courses with emphasis on a multidisciplinary approach and prepares computer-based learning materials and, in cooperation with other UN agencies, a thesaurus of water resources terms.
Box 4.4: Science advice on freshwater
The Scientific Committee on Water Research (SCOWAR) was established by the 24th General Assembly of ICSU in 1993 to provide the objective scientific expertise in water resource problems required to address frontier issues in science. The purpose of the SCOWAR working group is to address the ecological consequences of altered water regimes. The specific objectives are:
The activities are coordinated with relevant ICSU bodies such as the Biospheric Aspects of the Hydrological Cycle (BAHC), the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) and with national and international bodies such as the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the International Hydrological Programme.
The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), for example, was set up by UNESCO in 1960 to develop, recommend, and coordinate international programs for scientific investigation of the oceans and to provide ocean-related services to Member States. IOC is explicitly recognized as an international organization competent in marine scientific research within the context of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While quasi-autonomous, the IOC is assigned to UNESCO for funding and staffing and is reviewed by the UNESCO General Conference and Executive Board and administered under authority of the UNESCO Director General.
The IOC Secretariat consists of some 20 professionals headed by an executive director who is an oceanographer. The three component sections deal with Ocean Sciences, Operational Observing Systems, and Ocean Services. The Secretariat has established many electronic tools to enable policy makers to have access to the scientific and policy world, including a database, the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange System (IODE), a roster of experts (GLODIR), and a website with Internet links to the world of oceanography. Over the years since its creation, IOC has had an active partnership with the Scientific Committee on Ocean Research of ICSU in organizing international scientific cooperation.
IOC collaborates with and exchanges reports and technical information with many other organizations within the United Nations system. An example of an important joint program is the Joint Commission on Oceans and Atmosphere (J-COMM), created in
1999 in actions by UNESCO/IOC and the World Meteorological Congress of WMO. The formation of a high-level intergovernmental body of experts in oceanography and meteorology represented a culmination of more than 30 years of IOC/WMO cooperation on ocean observing systems and services. The Commission addresses such problems as El Niño/La Niña prediction as well as more general studies of global climate and climate change.
The IOC’s Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) is one of the global observing systems set up after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. It also contributes to the UNEP Global Earth Monitoring System (GEMS) and is a part of United Nations’ Earthwatch. It is managed with an international steering committee made up of representatives of IOC and the involved agencies, including ICSU/SCOR.
Specialized agencies of the United Nations are involved in a wide variety of science advice activities including the use of ad hoc technical groups to standing committees set up to provide advisory services. This is mainly because the mandates of these agencies require them to address scientific and technical issues on a regular basis. In addition to workshop reports and staff papers, these agencies rely on commissioned papers—mainly from independent consultants—to inform many of their internal activities. These approaches, however, are not guided by systematic procedures designed to ensure that the input provided—especially on major issues—is credible, legitimate, and relevant. The growing impact of scientific and technical matters on deliberations and activities of these agencies will increase their pressure on the chief executives to find more systematic and coordinated ways of security science advice. This may entail the creation of offices specifically charged with such a mandate and the adoption of procedures that are designed to ensure legitimacy, credibility, and the relevance of the science advice provided.
Processes, conferences, and joint research activities
In its norm setting and research activities, the United Nations operates through a variety of processes, conferences, programs, and forums. Processes are activities that are set up to function within a limited time frame. They are usually based on a single conference but have longer-term programs of work. Some of the processes evolve into more permanent forums. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests was transformed into the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests. Similar arrangements also exist for research programs that are jointly sponsored by two or more agencies.
Agenda setting on global issues often requires processes that involve a large number of stakeholders. Independent commissions have played an important role in defining the agenda for action in fields such as global governance, health research, disarmament and security, international development, population, food, water, solar energy, oceans, cultural diversity, large dams, sustainable development, and forests (Dowdeswell, 2001). The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, had a lasting impact on the global agenda. Its success can be attributed partly to the quality of input and the level of engagement with the public. The WCED established a strong knowledge base that included scientific assessments and subjected the various reports to external review. It
reached out to a diversity of constituencies and relied on public hearings and testimonies for its work.
In addition to building on a strong scientific basis for its work and reaching out to the public, the Brundtland Commission had a strong basis in formal diplomacy by building on a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. The impact of the engagement of the scientific community in the Brundtland Commission is also reflected in its outcomes. Its report, Our Common Future, provides a strong scientific and technological agenda for implementation of sustainable development goals (WCED, 1987).
The degree to which independent commissions rely on scientific and technical input varies considerably. Issues such as health, oceans, dams, and sustainable development have strong scientific underpinnings. The commissions have also helped to underscore the importance of broadening the knowledge base for development. For example, the World Commission on Culture and Development (WCCD, 1995) helped to underscore the role of traditional knowledge and cultural diversity in development.
The functioning of the World Commission on Dams—founded by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (IUCN)—is an example of issues of global concern that can only be effectively addressed through a structured process that encourages the use of scientific and technical information (WCD, 2000). The commission relied on a “knowledge base” including case studies and other technical material and review papers that provided a synthesis of the state of the art. The peer-reviewed papers identified various scenarios for future consideration, developed decision tools based on best practices, and proposed criteria and guidelines for decision making where the construction of large dams was an option. These papers provided the basis upon which public consultations were conducted. WCD explicitly sought to ensure that the development of new standards for managing large dams was founded on the best available information that was then used in public deliberations. The case of WCD reveals the growing interest in ensuring that democratic practices of decision making on major global issues are guided by the best available knowledge.
Scientific networks serve an important role in providing input into international decision making. Whereas many of the networks are independent activities with no formal institutional affiliations, some are part of existing organizations. The Species Survival Commission (SSC) of IUCN is an example of a network of scientists operating under the auspices of an international organization and generating information that is used for decision making. SSC has 7,000 volunteer members working in all regions of the world. They include wildlife researchers, government officials, wildlife veterinarians, zoo employees, marine biologists, wildlife park managers, and experts on birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, plants, and invertebrates, as well as experts on wildlife policy.
The members operate though more than 120 Specialist Groups and Task Forces. Some groups deal with conservation issues related to particular plant or animal groups, whereas others focus on topical issues such as sustainable use of species or reintroduction of species into their former habitats. The most important output of the SSC is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the status of plants and animals worldwide. It uses a set of criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of species and subspecies. The criteria are: “extinct,” “extinct
in the wild,” “critically endangered,” “endangered,” “vulnerable,” “near threatened,” and “least concern.”
A species is listed as threatened if it falls in the critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable categories. The IUCN Red List vividly conveys the urgency and scale of conservation challenges to the public and to policy makers and motivates the international community to take the necessary action. The SSC has over the years played a key role in keeping the public informed about trends in the conservation and use of biological diversity. The information is used for policy making within IUCN as well as in other international treaties and organizations dealing with biodiversity conservation, such as CITES, the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Placing species on the IUCN Red Data List is a complex process that involves interactions between the scientific community and political processes at the national and international levels.
Although intergovernmental processes, conferences, and joint research activities appear ephemeral, they often have major impact on global governance. United Nations summits, for example, have far-reaching implications for global governance and are often the source of significant follow-on activities. Many major conferences lead to the creation of new institutional arrangements. It is therefore important that the preparatory process for major conferences and summits benefit from science advice. This should be provided through the secretariats convening the events.
BOX 4.5: Some major international activities on freshwater involving science
United Nations System
UN and Affiliated International Organizations
Other International Activities
Source: Report on International Scientific Advisory Processes on the Environment and Sustainable Development, Prepared for the UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination, UNEP, by Jan-Stefan Fritz
Box 4.6: Science advice on marine pollution
The Global Investigation of Pollution in the Marine Environment (GIPME) is an international cooperative research program focused on marine contamination and pollution. It was established in response to the recommendations of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. GIPME is cosponsored by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the United Nations Environment Program, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
GIPME investigations focus primarily on the coastal zone and shelf seas. The program assesses the presence of contaminants and their effects on human health, marine ecosystems, and marine resources and amenities, both living and nonliving. A Scientific and Technical Committee that meets once every four years develops the program. The day-to-day work within GIPME is conducted by three Expert Scientific Groups: the Group of Experts for Methods, Standards and Intercalibration (GEMSI), the Group of Experts on the Effects of Pollutants (GEEP), and the Group of Experts on Standards and Reference Materials (GESREM). The Scientific and Technical Committee for GIPME establishes the long-term direction and strategy for the GIPME Program. Its published reports are the Comprehensive Plan for GIPME in 1976 and the GIPME Implementation Strategy in 1984.
Science advice is also provided through other international non-UN agencies that work on scientific and technical issues. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has a staff of professionals and experts seconded from member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It interfaces with energy information and analysis sources in its member nations to gather country statistics and information concerning energy programs, research, and technology. It holds workshops to survey and disseminate information on the state of knowledge in energy technical areas. The IEA maintains on-line databases and a directory of international partner organizations in member states.
The IEA performs national assessments and reviews of member states’ energy policies with the help of visiting teams of experts. It participates in joint programs with the Economic Commission for Europe and UNEP and provides background reports to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. IEA has been keenly involved in the issues of greenhouse gas reduction and energy use and has participated in UNFCCC deliberations. The Governing Board of IEA is assisted by standing groups and special advisory committees, which bring together energy specialists from member countries.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is a nongovernmental affiliate of the United Nations seeking to provide advice on biodiversity to organs of the UN. Its objective is to evaluate the usefulness of ecosystem goods and services to human development by assessing the damage caused by the degradation of ecosystems in various regions and communities. The information gathered during the assessment is to be used to determine national and international policy regarding ecosystems and the environment. This elaborate and comprehensive assessment is the first of its kind, in that it will include
analysis of the entire spectrum of ecosystem goods and services as well as all possible impacts on ecosystems. The focus of the assessment is unique also, as it takes the perspective of human gain and loss, rather than a purely environmental standpoint.
The original concept of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment came from a meeting of members of The World Resources Institute (WRI), United Nations Environmental Programme, United Nations Development Programme, and the World Bank who were looking for a more comprehensive and realistic assessment of ecosystem goods and services than was available in 1998. Members of these organizations pushed the concept to reality over the next few years, and today the MA is under way. The first step in this process was to establish an Exploratory Steering Committee to develop the plan of action and generate institutional support for the MA.
The functional structure of the MA consists of a Board, a supporting Secretariat, and five working groups. The Board oversees the assessment process and designates the course of action and focus of the working groups. Members of the board include expert representatives from academia, business, and civil society, in order to promote a broadly based final product.
The working groups each have a different focus, which is based on the conceptual framework designed by the Board of the MA. Each group has two chairs and multinational representation. The working groups will base their work on existing assessments and data, when available, and will collaborate with related institutional sources to fill in information gaps. These sources will include international assessment bodies as well as individual experts. The MA has been endorsed by and is intricately linked with the UN system, and it also receives support from national governments, the World Bank, and numerous foundations and funds.
The case of the MA shows the potential for delegating scientific assessment tasks to other organizations. Additional input into the United Nations system is provided through the participation of international organizations in the decision making processes of other bodies. Governing bodies that delegate scientific assessment responsibilities to other entities should provide guidelines that seek to enhance the credibility of the products of such assessments.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals play a significant role as sources of science advice and influence in the United Nations systems (Willetts, 1996; Raustiala, 1997). This is done through a variety of ways that include official participation at conferences—especially by those accredited to ECOSOC, where they have official speaking rights—and direct lobbying. NGOs occupy a special place in the United Nations system, and their influence has grown significantly over the years, especially in the post-UNCED period. Their activities have been closely associated with the wave of democratization that has swept across the world in the last decade. There is considerable variability in the character and orientation of these organizations. A number of them are specialized in certain fields of scientific and technological research and have played a key role in contributing advice to the international system.
Established in 1957, the Scientific Committee on Ocean Research (SCOR) of the International Council for Science (ICSU) is one of the oldest of the interdisciplinary bodies of the nongovernmental ICSU. The recognition that the scientific problems of the oceans require a truly interdisciplinary approach was embodied in plans for the International Geophysical Year in the 1950s. SCOR’s first major effort was to plan a coordinated, international attack on the least-studied ocean basin of all, the Indian Ocean, which resulted in the International Indian Ocean Experiment of the early 1960s.
For the next 30 years, the reputation of SCOR was largely based upon the successes of its scientific working groups. These small multinational groups of not more than 10 members each were established in response to proposals from the national committees for SCOR, other scientific organizations, or previous working groups. In general, they are designed to address fairly narrowly defined topics that can benefit from international attention. All working groups are expected to produce a final report, organize a workshop or symposium, or otherwise make a significant contribution to advancing understanding of the topic at hand within three or four years of being established.
One of the most significant aspects of recent trends in global governance has been the increasing role of non-state actors influencing international decision making. This development has also been associated with the growing demand for democratic decision making worldwide, globalization, and the prevalent use of information technology. International organizations have been searching for ways of incorporating the participation of non-state actors in their activities. As in other areas of decision making, science advice processes are increasingly providing space for the participation of these actors and as a result broadening the base for knowledge input and enhancing both the credibility and legitimacy of the results. The pressure to open up political space is also being extended to other previously excluded groups. For example, the demand for gender balance is being added to the agenda for reform in international science advice bodies. The role of non-state actors is therefore part of the growing demand for the democratization of global governance systems.
Attempts to improve the effectiveness of science advice have resulted in a wide range of experiments aimed at balancing between scientific credibility on the one hand and interactions between policy makers and science on the other hand. These institutional experiments demonstrate the growing interest of the UN in strengthening the role of science advice in decision making and therefore forming the basis for recommendations. Efforts to improve science advice in the UN system have focused on two main goals: enhancing scientific credibility and promoting interactions between science and policy. This is achieved through institutional adjustments of rules and procedures and organizational development, especially in secretariats responsible for managing science advice processes. Many of these adjustments and reforms are in their early stages of development and therefore require guidance by offices and individuals whose functions include determining when science advice is needed, creating procedures and systems that can enhance scientific credibility and promote science-policy interactions, and maintaining liaison with other organizations.