UNESCO calls on its statutory board of basic science for foresight next mid-term strategy and the future of science

13/12/2019
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A select group of natural scientists from around the world met at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 27 and 28 November to begin an in-depth analysis of the scientific direction and focus the organization should take in coming years. Their input is part of a new direction that the Scientific Board Members of UNESCO’s International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP) are taking in their efforts to draft upcoming recommendations to the organization’s science agenda for the next decade.

A select group of natural scientists from around the world met at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 27 and 28 November to begin an in-depth analysis of the scientific direction and focus the organization should take in coming years. Their input is part of a new direction that the Scientific Board Members of UNESCO’s International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP) are taking in their efforts to draft upcoming recommendations to the organization’s science agenda for the next decade.

“Science is really the foundation, the cement and brick to all the other UNESCO programs,” said Dr. Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Assistant Director General of UNESCO to the meeting’s participants. Yet, she acknowledged it is often shrouded in mystery and its economic benefits are unseen. What is needed at UNESCO is “a new manifesto for Basic Sciences and Engineering.”

She urged the IBSP Board Members and experts at the meeting to fuse together an ambitious agenda that would drive forward multi-sectoral and trans-disciplinary scientific research and policies that help empower youth and women and establish interconnections between science and society.

To that end, Prof. Amon Muwira, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Development in Zimbabwe added, “One of the most important ingredients to make sure that science is advancing are the teachers of science.”

Indeed, the meeting attendees stressed the importance of continued scientific learning and the cycle of progressive development in a society that it enables. Science is a lever for progress. This is not a new idea. From the earliest scientific discoveries, people have devised tools to improve health, increase agricultural productivity and facilitate learning and communication. What is new is the pace of change, the scope of its impacts and the unprecedented nature of challenges and opportunities.

Today, however, the benefits of basic sciences are still unevenly distributed, and many countries are unable to create and take advantage of scientific knowledge.These problems are compounded by the threats facing the world. The Earth and its inhabitants are on a dangerous course, due to global warming on land and sea, the increasing numbers of natural disasters, and the deterioration of biodiversity across the globe, said Mr. Xing Qu, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO.
 
The meeting attendees agreed that through investments in teaching science, building research institutes and developing national academies, the innovation that comes out of these basic science investments help, for example, to detect and avoid medical diseases, improve vaccines, develop engineering and robotics, lead to global digitalization and big data investigations, clean energy development, understanding of climate change and an ability to advocate for scientific culture and scientific literacy.

The attendees took cognizance of the important synergies that had existed between basic science and the industry. The role of basic sciences in industrial revolutions has been numerous and has led us today to what is now termed as the 4th industrial revolution, in which technologies are converging, disrupting norms, and changing lives.

If global spending on basic sciences in the global north has increased despite the economic crisis, it is largely because it has been identified as a key factor in promoting economic growth and development. As a result, a great many countries, regardless of the size of their income, now see research and innovation as a way to keep up in a highly competitive world or find their place in it.

Identifying where UNESCO can better concentrate its efforts in what is already a broad agenda will be the next goal of the IBSP board members and scientific advisors to UNESCO. “How do we enhance national implementation plans?” Dr. Peggy Oti-Boateng, Director of the Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building in the Natural Sciences Sector in UNESCO asked the attendees. “How do we integrate solutions to complex international challenges?” How do we  promote interdisciplinarity?

One of the first goals recognized will be to better promote, among the wider scientific community, a greater awareness of the complexity and interrelatedness of current sustainability challenges. Young scientists in the early stages of their career, as well as professional scientists trained in disciplinary approaches will require capacity building in the knowledge and skills they need to do collaborative research. This situation may be a given in certain countries, but as most of the participants alluded to, there is still a long way to go, particularly in the global south, to increase and strengthen this inter-disciplinary collaborative research to address increasingly complex challenges.

The meeting report will be submitted to the Director-General, as per the statutes of the IBSP.