Science Advice in the United Nations

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Knowledge and Diplomacy: Science Advice in the United Nations System

With such an appealing title, this book (2002, 120 pages, simple formatting, easy read) went straight to the top of my pile of books to read. You can get the pdf for free at the NAS press or the physical version for around 25$. I paid 10$ on eBay, but I wish I had my Kindle back then!

It is truly an interesting topic. The approach aims to respond on the tricky business of advising science from inside international organizations. The UN, for example, has made several clear calls to qualitatively and quantitatively strengthen science advice across and throughout its structure (e.g. Agenda 21 Chapter 31). The main goal of such an advisory body would be then to increase awareness, rule making, oversight but also local implementation, address emerging issues and coordinate global cooperation and response.

One of the difficulties inside international organizations for such an endeavor gets explained quite promptly. Science advice should be credible, based on expertise, peer reviewed and independent. This would, with the current status quo lead into a mostly “western” science advice, where most scientist come from or work in Europe or USA, where the forefront of research is mostly happening. However, international organization do have to leverage diplomacy. Then, political, geographical and cultural representation confronts the scientific precepts. Without a proper savoir faire, the recommendations wouldn´t be truly international and probably felt as “externals” to most countries. It is therefore necessary to create a compromise. One example of such a balance is the IPCC.

Another key point is to realize that Science Advice is not only a report or representation of the scientific consensus. A scientific adviser body is also a link, a recruiter, an oversee. It performs an continued guidance of present and emerging issues, as well as alert of unforeseen future issues. Science Advice is, by all means, necessary on every level, from local implementation to global policy scales.

After analyzing the current status, issues and responsibilities, the balance of scientific rigor and diplomacy, the experience from history, the foresight of the future … this report creates 5 recommendations to achieve a best performing science advice with the UN, or any other international organization:

  1. Quijote en BruselasFor each body with substantial responsibility, an Office of the Science Advisor should be created. This scalable office should perform all of the mentioned responsibilities, as well as assist on the public recognition of policy issues.
  2. An template mechanism should be used. These general procedures should be tailored to specific needs, but a common framework will increase uniformity, cooperation, and (probably most importantly) help assess legitimacy.
  3. Help each member states to strengthen their own scientific advisory and recruitment. This is an important towards achieving a truly international and participative advice.
  4. Complement internal processes with reviews and checks by independent organizations. This recommendation aims to maximize credibility.
  5. Make great use of other existing mechanisms (like the IPCC). This addresses cross operability, optimal communications and, again, credibility.

I would recommend this book to anyone working at or collaborating with international organization, whose actions are based on Science or Technology. That probably means all of them, but this should not surprise anyone. Most projects and policies nowadays are dependent on Scientific or Technological achievements. These are force multipliers (make it easier) or enablers (make it possible). I am talking about education or research, or national strategic policies in general, or particular applications like remote sensing, Internet, crow-sourcing, … (the list goes and goes on with every passing day). This is specially true for Development, where there is so much need, and therefore so much potential.

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