Friday, September 25, 2009

"What's wrong with UNESCO"

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.
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.


John Daly said...

Sid Passman, who has very closely followed the UNESCO science program which he once led, emailed me the following comment:

John Daly has called our attention to the recent Nature Editorial which is critical of the UNESCO science program. Frankly, I find the Editorial poorly informed and un helpful.

UNESCO has a Science program that reflects the evolution of priorities developed from inputs from regional and international inputs and the votes of many Science Commissions at General Conferences.

The organization has made a sincere effort to reflect the advice of the Science Advisory group ( within the rigid constraints of the budget )in the revised 35C5 now before the 35GC, to convene shortly.

The correct procedure was for the US, like other Member States to convene it's science team to reflect on the program and suggest additions and modification by submitting DRs and arranging for extra budgetary support for extensions to the program, e.g. in expansions of the basic science program and the engineering sciences.

A competent team should be fielded to the GC and their influence attempted in the UNESCO Science Commission.

This is not the first time that I have made such suggestions but the Administration seems very slow to attend to UNESCO matters.

On the positive side, I congratulate Andre (Varchaver, President of Americans for UNESCO) for trying to revive the NATCOM and I have written to Amb. Killion thanking him for his brilliant efforts at the Executive Board.

UNESCO needs constructive criticism--not jabs at its competence and low blows by dilletantes.

Sid Passman

John Daly said...

I suspect that the science programs of UNESCO can and should be made more efficient. I am concerned, however, with the suggestion that it become more focused.

What would be cut? I agree with the editorial that one would not cut the water program, which is increasingly needed and increasingly needed. Would one cut the program focusing on biodiversity as environmental problems are causing huge losses of biodiversity? Would one cut the Oceanographic program which has recently had a huge success in creation of a tsunami early warning system, as member nations are moving to exploit ocean resources and as those resources are in some cases beginning to crash? How about the program to improve the utilization of scientific information in decision making? Can you think of something more needed and potentially more cost effective? That leaves the program to strengthen science, technology and innovation in Africa. Even if someone were short sighted enough to cut that program, which Nature recognizes as performing well, the member nations of UNESCO would never let that happen.

I think the answer is to increase the resources of the UNESCO science programs so that they can more effectively address the needs for their efforts. Before that happens, however, UNESCO's governing bodies will probably have to be assured that the resources will be applied more efficiently and effectively.