Yet despite its shortcomings, UNESCO is uniquely placed in being the only UN agency with an explicit mandate to promote science. And its intergovernmental status, although often a handicap, potentially gives it the power to convene the world's best expertise to take forward important agendas.
UNESCO has made a start along those lines. Its advice to Nigeria on building a science system is credited as a factor in the Nigerian government's $5 billion commitment to science in 2006. UNESCO has the potential to become a leader in such areas, providing policy analysis and benchmarking for less scientifically advanced countries. This seems a better road to promoting infrastructure than its current smattering of tiny grants in its International Basic Sciences Programme. UNESCO should give up the hopeless notion that it can be a research funder, and focus on policy and leverage.
The outgoing director general Koïchiro Matsuura, a Japanese diplomat, has reformed UNESCO's finances and recruitment practices. But he brought little vision or change to the science programme. His successor should take the 2007 review as the starting point for a root-and-branch review of the science programme, persuade the member states to weed out all activities that have little or no impact and create a culture of performance, transparency and evaluation. An upcoming wave of retirement at the agency provides an opportunity to bring in fresh blood.
The history and culture of UNESCO do not bode well for serious change. But business as usual is not an option if UNESCO is to have a scientific raison d'être.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Nature magazine, one of the world's most influential scientific journals, has published an editorial subtitled "The new director-general needs to buck all expectations and transform the agency." The anonymous editorial decries what its author deems the failure of UNESCO to follow up adequately on the 2007 evaluation of its science programs and calls on UNESCO to focus its limited staff and resources on a few areas of science in order to have more impact.
Posted by John Daly at 9:01 AM