Findings and Recommendations
The previous two chapters assessed science advice activities in the United Nations system. The assessment reveals that many of the elements of science advice outlined in Chapter 2 are being practiced but not in a systematic and consistent manner. For example, some international organizations have offices of the Science Advisor or their equivalents but they lack the appropriate procedures that can be used to strengthen the credibility of their work.
There is sufficient evidence to suggest that scientific leadership or entrepreneurship has played a key role in promoting international environmental agreements. These entrepreneurial efforts did not necessarily result in the creation of durable institutional arrangements and procedures for science advice. Where there is no effective secretariat guidance, governments may not easily agree on when science advice is needed and such determination is subject to political negotiations. As shown in previous chapters, much of the emphasis in the United Nations has over the decades been on geographical representation with little consideration for scientific credibility. But this is starting to change, and international organizations are starting to seek a balance between the two.
The management of biases and conflict is one of the weakest aspects of current science advice practices in the United Nations system. Although a few organs such as IPCC have developed measures to deal with this, the use of consultancy reports, workshops, and other tools of conference diplomacy promote the commingling of political interests and scientific assessments to levels that undermine the credibility of the outputs. The absence of clear procedures dealing with science advice exposes United Nations staff to political influence that compromises the management of data.
Although the reports may be outstanding products, the dominant processes often cast a shadow of doubt over their scientific standing. Many organizations are instituting measures to improve review processes and are developing rosters of experts from which they select names, but there is still excessive dependence on a limited number of consultants who often have undue influence on the outlook of the organizations that they work for. This concern can be addressed through an effective review process and broadening of the sourcing of papers. Despite these concerns, there are encouraging signs that the United Nations is making efforts to address these issues and to adopt measures that will maintain sovereign equity while at the same time promoting scientific credibility. Continuous management of this balance requires expertise in science advice
as well as the creation of appropriate institutional arrangements such as the office of Science Advisor. Such an office would be responsible for designing the procedures needed for science advice as outlined in Chapter 2.
The United Nations system operates through a wide range of organs including the General Assembly, commissions, programs, research institutes, agencies, treaty bodies, forums, and conferences. Science advisory mechanisms of one sort or another are found throughout the system. However, executive heads of UN agencies, including the United Nations Secretary-General, have no systematic mechanisms that govern science advice for their operations. This is particularly important because these officers are responsible for alerting governments on emerging issues in their areas of jurisdiction, although decision making is reserved for intergovernmental processes. The various organs of the United Nations are autonomous and respond to their governing bodies rather than to other UN organs.
Many of the advisory committees of the United Nations provide scientific input into decision making but have no specific procedures that ensure quality and balance. Treaty bodies dealing with a variety of environmental and sustainable development issues have started to establish subsidiary bodies to incorporate science advice in their functions. However, the advice provided by these bodies is usually framed in the context of negotiating positions. There are a few quasi-independent science assessment processes in the United Nations that provide status reports on global scientific problems and recommendations to governments. The best known of these is the IPCC, which serves as a model for other assessment processes.
The agencies use a wide range of approaches to provide science advice depending on the functions of the various organs. Many of them rely on science advisory committees, staff reports, and consultancy studies, and the credibility of such reports varies considerably. Much of the advice provided in the United Nations system is undertaken indirectly through various deliberative bodies or through subsidiary advisory bodies. IPCC offers one model for fairly independent science advisory bodies within the UN system, but, as an intergovernmental body, its results already reflect a degree of government input, and it is not entirely independent. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) is an alternative approach designed to preserve the independence of the advisory process.
There are presently considerable efforts by several organizations to improve the role of science advice in United Nations activities. The focus of the efforts has been to find institutional arrangements to improve the balance between scientific credibility and the need to promote interactions between policy makers and the scientific community, many of them inspired by IPCC. The recommendations provided in this report aim to support current efforts to improve science advice in the system.
As discussed in Chapter 1 and 2, there has been significant progress during the last decades in incorporating science advice into the work of the deliberative bodies and the programs of the United Nations. To support that progress, we make five recommendations that could greatly increase the UN system’s ability to obtain science advice on the wide range of issues that it must address in the decades ahead. Two recommendations address staffing for science advice and the processes of science advice. The third recommendation is addressed to member states and calls upon them to develop their own capability for generating and using science advice for their own activities. The fourth recommendation calls on the governing bodies and assemblies to make greater use of external organizations that can offer science advice in the manner prescribed in this report, and the fifth urges the organization to continue other forms of science-based policy processes such as scientific assessments. The recommendations are based on general principles and practices that reflect current best practice in science advice. They are generalized for the UN organization as a whole, and they will naturally require some specific tailoring for the various organs of the United Nations.
Staffing the UN System for Increased Utilization of Science Advice
As discussed in Chapter 2, knowledgeable science advisers are essential for the organization and interpretation of science advice. The adviser must know when advice is needed, identify sources of information that may exist, select and recruit individuals who can become part of a committee to analyze a problem, and understand and implement the principles of the science advisory process referred to in Chapter 2. The chief executives of the governing bodies of the UN system would be greatly assisted in their strategic and operational responsibilities by having such science advisers as a part of their senior executive staffs.
Recommendation 1: Governing bodies of the United Nations that have substantial responsibilities for implementing sustainable development programs should each create an Office of the Science Advisor or equivalent facility or organizational function appropriate to its mandate.
The science advisory function should be within the office of the Secretary-General, Director-General, or Executive Secretary of the organ or conference and should serve the governing body of the organization through the Secretariat. These bodies include the governing bodies of specialized agencies and the governing bodies of specially convened international meetings, such as the World Summit on the Information Society to be held in 2003 and 2005 in Geneva and Tunis, respectively.
The purpose of these facilities would be to assist in the identification of scientific elements of policy questions, generate balanced and independent science advice, and help to interpret the resulting findings and recommendations for use in the policy process. The function of this office would be to:
Assist the governing body and the secretariat to recognize policy issues that require or would benefit from science advice,
Help the governing body and the secretariat to formulate the scientific questions to be asked,
Carry out or commission from an external organization the science advice process to respond to the questions,
Assist the governing body and the executive to interpret the meaning and degree of uncertainty in the resulting report, and
Help the governing body and the secretariat to understand the possible policy implications of the science advice.
The Science Advisor who heads the office should be chosen according to the principles elaborated above. It is important to ensure that the work of such Science Advisory offices be carried out in conformity with the best standards of the scientific community and carry the credibility of good science.
Management of data and information also requires a well-trained staff to serve the study committees. Staff can carry out extensive reviews of the literature, commission analytical papers on particular aspects of the topic, arrange expert testimony to the committee, and convene workshops where a variety of experts may present data and express their views to members of the committee. It is important to ensure the competence and independence of the staff and adherence to clear principles of science advice.
Science Advice that draws on established, proven principles creates credible, transparent, and authoritative information for decision makers.
The experience of scientific academies and other organizations involved in independent science advice has led to the development and evolution of a set of procedures that characterize good science advice. These include careful attention to statement of the task, recruitment of a broadly expert study committee with a balance of disciplines and views, management of external inputs, production of a public report, and independent peer review. The scientific community accepts processes containing these elements as indicators of objective science advice. They can be carried out by a unit within an organization, or commissioned from an outside entity. We therefore propose
Recommendation 2: Each such science advisory facility or organizational mechanism should adopt an appropriate set of general procedures based on those described in this report, adapted to any special circumstances of the organization. These procedures should be widely publicized within the corresponding diplomatic and scientific communities.
The purpose of this recommendation is to ensure that the UN organizations move toward reasonable uniformity of scientific advisory procedures based upon the best practices of the world scientific community.
Member governments can also benefit from establishing procedures for science advice.
In order to have available a pool of scientific and technical experts to participate in scientific advisory studies, it will be necessary to strengthen science and technology capability in many member states, especially developing countries. Experts from those countries will be more effective in the scientific advisory process and more influential in UN forums if they are experienced in the principle and practice of science advice. A program of support to develop science advice capability in the less developed member states will benefit the UN by ensuring wider geographical distribution among experts as it helps the governments to gain science advice for public policy making. The UN should also assist national science academies or other designated organizations within the countries, including non-state actors, to carry out advisory functions guided by the elements set out in Chapter 2. Suitable programs should include providing training and internships for staff, funding joint studies with other advisory groups or science academies in other countries, and recruiting experts associated with these organizations for UN science advisory committees.
Recommendation 3. The United Nations should help member states to strengthen their own scientific advisory capabilities, and it should recruit scientists associated with these national capabilities for UN scientific advisory functions. The United Nations will be better able to use scientific advice when all nations have the capability to participate fully in its scientific advisory processes.
Established Independent Science Organizations Offer an Excellent Means of Obtaining Advice.
The United Nations has a history of working with outside bodies to obtain information and advice on many issues chief executives and deliberative assembly bodies must address, including questions of environmental and social policy. Recognizing that implementation of Recommendations 1 and 2 may take some time to implement fully, chief executives and assemblies should, in the meantime, make arrangements with outside bodies to provide science advice. The International Council for Science (ICSU) and the InterAcademy Council, among others, are organizations that could undertake studies in response to specific questions posed by chief executives or assemblies. However, to ensure that the advice has the greatest degree of scientific credibility, the outside bodies should be required to operate on the basis of the elements discussed in Chapter 2 of this report.
Recommendation 4. To complement their internal scientific advisory processes, chief executives and deliberative assemblies, separately or in cooperation, should commission science policy advice from established independent organizations that follow procedures similar to those described here.
Scientific Assessment Mechanisms That Have Scientific Credibility and Transparency Are Especially Important to the Future Effectiveness of the UN System.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is one such model of placing scientific assessments into the deliberative processes of a political assembly. These are surveys and analyses of the status of one or more important global problems, often with recommendations for international cooperative action. Part of the value of the IPCC rests on the credibility of its process. Its periodic reports have provided established information on trends in climate change to parties adhering to the UNFCCC, together with recommendations for actions that could be adopted in response. Other deliberative bodies could benefit from similar scientific and policy assessments that were undertaken on a periodic basis.
Recommendation 5. Assemblies and other deliberative bodies should make greater use of scientific assessment mechanisms, such as the IPCC, that have the transparency and credibility of a scientific process. Scientific assessment mechanisms provide a good model to be considered for other nonscientific, deliberative, and advisory processes.
In making these five recommendations, we recognize that each UN organization must adapt them to the circumstances of its own charters and operations. We also recognize that they cannot be implemented overnight and that they represent goals to be achieved by UN organizations over the first years of the 21st century.
The 20th century will be remembered for its great scientific and technological advances and their application to human welfare, especially in health, agriculture, and reduction of oppressive labor.1 Tragically, the use of some of these technological powers for destructive purposes has become a clear threat to human civilization. The challenge at the dawn of the 21st century is to harness the ever-growing power of science and technology for improving the human condition and the well being of the Earth’s life support systems for current and future generations. To fulfill this sustainability promise will require the mobilization of the scientific community of the world to contribute to this effort. One means for doing this is to make greater use of science and technology advice to the UN system in order to contribute to improved global governance. By strengthening its science advisory processes, the UN system will ensure its effective leadership in reaching goals of sustainability during the century ahead.
A committee of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering selected these developments as the most important engineering accomplishments of the 20th century: electrification; automobile; airplane; water supply and distribution; electronics; radio and television; agricultural mechanization; computers; telephone; air conditioning and refrigeration; highways; spacecraft; Internet; imaging; household appliances; health technologies; petroleum and petrochemical technologies; laser and fiber optics; nuclear technologies; and high-performance materials, www.greatachievements.org.