Friday, August 29, 2008

UNESCO and Governance of the New Invisible College

In her book, The New Invisible College: Science for Development, Dr. Caroline Wagner describes the growth of global science and the even more rapid growth of international collaboration among scientists. Today science is truly a global enterprise, more so than might have been imagined when UNESCO was founded more than six decades ago. Indeed, the world's expenditure on science is greater than the national income of all but a handful of countries.

According to the National Science Foundation, the number of scientific journal articles increased by 2.3 percent per year between 1995 and 2005. From 1988 to 2008, the share of publications with authors from multiple institutions grew from 40 to 61 percent. In the same time, the portion of publications with authors from institutions in more than one nation increased from eight to 20 percent.

In the final chapter of her book, Dr. Wagner considers the governance of this new invisible college of collaborating scientists building a grand edifice of knowledge. In this context governance is:
The use of institutions, structures of authority and collaboration to allocate resources and coordinate or control activity in in the society of science to achieve desired ends.
Her discussion raises an important issue. How can a self-organizing international network of many millions of scientists be governed? Indeed, at issue is whether such a network -- of people who have been trained to think independently, who come from many cultures and who live in many nations -- can be governed at all. Yet clearly mankind will benefit from the appropriate allocation of scientific resources and coordination of scientific activity to advance knowledge and understanding of the world, including the applied science to help us live better.
The term "invisible college" was coined by the Robert Boyle, the 17th century savant, to describe the informal group of scientists who were exchanging information and views, and which included such other luminaries as Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, a group that was later to form the nucleus of the Royal Society. The term was later used by Derek de Solla Price, the great historian of science, to describe the informal networks of scientists that have formed in the information age. The term is now widely used. In Dr. Caroline Wagner's hands the term refers to "an invisible college of researchers who collaborate not because they are told to but because they want to, who work together not because they share a laboratory or even a discipline but because they can offer each other complementary insight, knowledge, or skills."
I believe that not only is governance of the invisible college possible, but that the evolution of governance institutions is well under way. Various aspects of that governance are addressed in the following paragraphs, with emphasis on the role of UNESCO in each aspect of governance.

UNESCO's Central Role in Global Science

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics plays a central role in the global system providing information on the scientific enterprise. It not only collects and publishes comparative information on the scientific resources and activities of the nations of the world, UNESCO also advises countries on how to collect such information in ways to assure comparability among nations. The UNESCO Science Report, the flagship publication of the science programs of UNESCO, provides an overview of the world's science, complemented by other supporting publications.

The World Science Conference, held in 1999, was one of a series of UNESCO sponsored conferences, held within the framework of a more extensive conferences of the United Nations system, that served to catalyze global attention on science and build consensus among nations on the importance of science and on directions for the further development of science. In the more recent World Summit on the Information Society, cosponsored by UNESCO and the International Telecommunications Union, UNESCO helped bring the participants to the realization that the development of science is central to the development of knowledge societies.

While other decentralized agencies of the United Nations system have important scientific interests (e.g. WHO and biomedical sciences, FAO and agricultural sciences), it is UNESCO that leads in these efforts to provide information on the global invisible college and to convene leaders to discuss its state, future and priorities.

The U.S. Perspective

Over the last half century, Americans have often lead in the institutionalization of mechanisms in UNESCO to promote collaboration and coordination of international scientific efforts, with important benefits to the American scientific as well as the world scientific enterprise, and indeed important social and economic benefits to the United States as well as other nations.

The U.S. share of total world scientific article output fell between 1995 and 2005, from 34 to 29 percent. We see many nations, such as China, India, Russia and Brazil overcoming their historical poverty through rapid economic growth, and as their wealth increases they are rapidly building their scientific capacities. Those and similar trends will no doubt continue to increase the amount of scientific knowledge that will be developed abroad.

That trend is to America's advantage as other nations assume more of the burden of contributing to the global stock of scientific knowledge, but only if Americans effectively tap into that stock effectively. United States science policy already deals seriously with the acquisition of scientific knowledge created abroad, and that emphasis must increase in the future. It also is in our national interest to take measures to help assure that the international creation of scientific knowledge and understanding continues and that the global scientific system deals with issues that are important to us.

The issue of the governance of international scientific systems appears often to be misunderstood. Institutionalizing new cross-border systems for the governance of science need not imply a loss of national sovereignty over domestic science. For example, the first intergovernmental organizations, which were created in the 19th century, were the International Telecommunications Union and the International Postal Union; Those intergovernmental bodies simply recognized that if people wanted to send telegrams or letters between nations, there needed to be agreements among the nations involved as to how those communications were to be handled. Similarly, to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, the nations of the Americas, with U.S. leadership created the Pan American Sanitary Bureau in 1902 to improve the cooperation and coordination among national public health programs; it was so successful that the United States later led in the creation of the World Health Organization. We are familiar with these systems, and find them no threat to our liberty and indeed supportive of our interests. Nor is UNESCO in its role encouraging the better coordination of international scientific activities.
Structural complexities and the intrinsic dynamism of science and technology pose challenges to policy makers, but they seem almost manageable compared to the challenges posed by extrinsic forces. Among these are globalization and the impact of global economic development on the environment.
John Marburger, President Bush's Science Advisor
OECD High Level Meeting of the Committee for Science and Technology Policy

March 2008
The "governance of science" does not imply "government". Indeed, science has been called self-governing in that voluntary, non-governmental organizations in the scientific community invoke their own internal mechanisms to prevent scientific fraud and plagiarism. Again, American scientific societies play a crucial role in the global network of scientific unions.

National Governmental Policies

Quite reasonably Dr. Wagner in her book focuses considerable attention on governments and their role in governance of the global scientific system. Governments are major funders of fundamental science, and science to produce knowledge as a public good. They govern science within their borders, including the scientific activities of academia and the private sectors. More to the point, as mentioned above, national governments have nowhere delegated sovereignty over their domestic science to international or intergovernmental bodies.

Dr. Wagner makes a very pertinent observation that all countries must now recognize that it is often not only more efficient but also more practical to obtain scientific information that they need from abroad than from domestic sources. That information can be obtained from the public domain or by collaborations between homeland and foreign scientists. She recognizes that nations must build their internal scientific capacity and support their scientists in their work, but that domestic concern must be matched by an international orientation as well.

Thus all nations must build their science policies around the acquisition of scientific information from abroad and the facilitation of international collaboration by its scientists.

U.S. international science policy must also be seen as closely linked to our soft diplomacy and our development assistance policy. We are still by far the world's scientifically strongest nation, and the use of our science capacity to train scientists from other countries and to help them build their scientific capacity is greatly appreciated by those other countries. Only with the leadership of the American scientific and technological community will the world make adequate progress in the fight against hunger and disease, and in the safeguarding of the environment and the sustainable exploitation of natural resources -- key efforts to both our soft diplomacy and our developoment assistance. Moreover, by helping others, we can help establish the linkages between U.S. and foreign scientists that will be so important in the future.

The Private Sector

The rise of multinational companies in an increasingly global economy raises significant issues of the role of corporations in international science. These corporations fund a great deal of science, and indeed carry out a great deal of research within their corporate structures. Increasingly the multinationals are moving their research activities from country to country, seeking lower research costs, higher research quality, or access to national markets. There seems little alternative than to allow the corporations to make their own science strategies under the discipline of the market, although national governments can and do regulate research activities of corporations doing business within their borders, and offer incentives and sanctions intended to assure appropriate corporate science is done within their borders and in support of their economic and other needs. Perhaps more importantly, governments survey the research portfolio of the private, for-profit sector to detect under funded areas which require public intervention. Interestingly, UNESCO is establishing partnerships with some of the leading research companies in the world, and thus is indirectly and subtlely guiding their scientific efforts.

Civil society plays a smaller role in international science, but foundations have been quite important and it may well be that it is increasingly so. U.S. experience is that foundations and non-governmental organizations provide an important complement to government funding of non-commercial science. The government's role has been to establish rules that make donations to such organizations tax deductible, and regulate to ensure that civil society organizations use their resources to promote charitable causes. UNESCO is unique among intergovernmental organizations in that its constitution calls for National Commissions in each member state, and these national commissions involve civil society in the governance of UNESCO as well as directly link to UNESCO and each other in support of UNESCO's programs.

Civil society includes the scientific professional societies, and UNESCO has always been closely linked to the International Council for Science, the umbrella organization for the group of international scientific unions. These member supported organizations, as described above, not only play a key role in the governance of the invisible college, but also through their journals play the central role in the diffusion of new scientific knowledge; their archives are the first repository of the body of this knowledge.

Institutions to Promote Trust

The institutionalization of systems of international collaboration require there to be trust among the collaborators. A small but significant effort that establishes that trust is the effort of organizations such as UNESCO and the European Union to establish standard setting conventions that assure that educational credentials are comparable among participating nations. It is really important to scientists choosing collaborators that the doctorate held by a potential collaborator is a valid certification of that person's ability to conduct research professionally.

More importantly, science is somewhat self regulating. Professional journals and peer review provide systems to prevent scientific fraud and to warrant the quality of scientific work while disseminating scientific information in the public domain. Most important, the scientific process which promotes independent replication of scientific results provides a means for preventing errors from creeping onto the corpus of scientific knowledge. In the United States, and in other nations, being convicted of scientific misconduct results not only in public embarrassment and the loss of government grants, but also loss of academic status and facing a lifetime of suspicion in peer review processes.

The UN decentralized agencies also play an important, albeit little recognized role, in building trust in the scientific community. For example, the World Health Organization establishes peer review mechanisms using the results of biomedical research to establish guidelines for medical practice which are widely accepted in developing nations.

UNESCO has an important role in such trust building. For example, its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission provides a mechanism which establishes trust among the states whose waters are traversed by research ships on their voyages; its International Hydrological Program similarly provides a trusted agent for cross border hydrological studies. UNESCO's World Network of Biosphere Reserves provides a mechanism by which countries can commit to cooperation in the operation of this global network and the research to establish means for sustainable preservation of biodiversity.

The UNESCO Chairs and Program and its Twinning and Networking Program" was conceived as a way to advance research, training and program development in higher education by building university networks and encouraging inter-university cooperation through transfer of knowledge across borders." The keystone universities in these programs are vetted through a careful selection program in both the National Commissions of UNESCO and the UNESCO Secretariat and governing bodies, thereby assuring that they are worthy of trust. Since the programs inception in 1992, more than 350 chairs and networks have been established in the sciences, and the program continues.

In other cases bilateral or multilateral agreements are created, such as for the financing of megaprojects that are cooperatively financed by several nations, and which offer facilities to be used by multinational networks of collaborators. Two of the landmark examples of internationally funded scientific centers are direct outcomes of UNESCO's efforts: CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and the ICTP (the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics).

The Ethical Conduct of Science

Not only are scientists supposed to be honest about the work that they do and the results that they produce, they must act ethically in their treatment of human subjects, in their treatment of animals that are involved in their research, and in the containment of risks that their research might cause the public or the environment. While many decentralized United Nations agencies work to assure ethical conduct of science within their spheres of influence, UNESCO has a central role through its Bioethics Program and its World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) and its Conference series: Ethics around the World

Financing of Global Science as a Public Good

The International Agricultural Research Centers are perhaps a prototypical network that meets a global need, and requires funding from a consortium of donors. The network, governed by the Consortium for International Agricultural Research with its scientific advisory bodies, is essentially a club of funding bodies -- governments and foundations. The IARCs serve a global purpose in the maintenance of seed banks protecting the biodiversity of mankind's major crop species, making it available as a public good. They also are the keystone in a network of national agricultural research and extension services, providing improved varieties to be adapted to local conditions by national bodies, and increasingly interacting with global private sector seed and agricultural chemistry industries. The system in part was created in response to the fact that poor, developing nations did not have the keystone agricultural research capacity that was needed to fight hunger, promote rural development, and prevent famines. The international agricultural research system has been regarded as the most fully articulated such system, but its recent lack of funding indicate the remaining inadequacy of that form of international scientific governance.

While other initiatives involving multinational support for centers of research excellence have been introduced their success is mixed. CERN, a facility for nuclear research in Europe, financed by a club of rich nations, has been successful over decades, and counts such successes as the invention of the World Wide Web. So too, the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh (IDDRB) has been in operation for decades and can point to many accomplishments, including Oral Rehydration Therapy. But the Central American system of regional research and development centers has had continued difficulties raising support among its member states.

UNESCO has created a decentralized group of Centers and Institutes in education and the sciences. In some cases it provides core funding from its assessed budgets, matched by voluntary contributions for the funding of these organizations. In others, it simply provides an organizational umbrella and legitimization for a Center which is financed by member nations. Proposals to add an organization to this group are carefully evaluated, and are accepted only after recommendation by UNESCO's Executive Board and a vote by its General Conference. Thus UNESCO does not accept responsibility for the success of such an organization lightly. On the other hand, the on-the-record support for such an organization by the community of 193 member states of UNESCO provides it great credibility.

The Application of Scientific Knowledge

For most of us, knowledge without application is unsatisfactory. For all of us, the failure of so many governments to make policies and implement programs using fully the available knowledge leads to tragedy. If the governance of science involves the coordination and organization of scientific ends, then efforts to improve the utilization of scientific results by governments are important aspects of governance. UNESCO's flagship effort in its Social and Human Sciences Program is "The Management of Social Transitions". The MOST Program's primary purpose is to transfer relevant Social Sciences research findings and data to decision-makers and other stakeholders. MOST focuses on building efficient bridges between research, policy and practice. That program promotes a culture of evidence-based policy-making – nationally, regionally and internationally.

Donor Assistance for Building Scientific Capacity

The International Financial Institutions, the United Nations programs and decentralized agencies, and bilateral donors all have programs to support the creation of scientific capacity in developing nations, and of the capacity to govern science in those nations. UNESCO's Basic and Engineering Science Program and its Science Policy and Sustainable Development Program are especially important in this respect. UNESCO also has a number of regional offices for science, and a strong emphasis on building scientific capacity in Africa in support of the NEPAD program defined by African leaders themselves.

The coordination of the portfolio of donor efforts are sometimes accomplished by donor coordinating bodies, and sometimes by interlocking directorates as the governments of the bilateral donors and the major recipients govern the intergovernmental organizations. All of these bodies, however, benefit from the statistics and information that UNESCO has helped to develop internationally.

Final Comment

As the global Invisible College is growing and evolving, so too are the institutional infrastructure providing the resources the Invisible College needs to thrive, the trust among its participants needed to enable their collaboration, and the prioritization needed for the allocation of resources and attention, as well as the distribution of its results.

World spending on R&D is more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year, and if one considers other scientific and technological activities that funding must be well over a trillion dollars a year. Millions of scientists working in nearly 200 nations are involved in the system. A century ago international science was not not nearly of this scale. The change is like that of a village growing into a metropolis. Not surprisingly one must count the time for the evolution of the international governance institutions supporting this expanded system in decades (centuries?) rather than in years. Expanding the metaphor, we do not yet understand how to build an adequate institutional infrastructure for the megacities that are appearing around the world, even though there have been large cities from which to learn for centuries. There is no model for the governance of a huge global network of collaborating scientists, and it should not be surprising that we are seeing institutional gaps and institutional failures. Still, as the discussion above has demonstrated, the system is working fairly well and much has been done, with UNESCO in a central role in the governance of the global invisible college! The United States will increasingly benefit by the importation of scientific knowledge from abroad, and thus UNESCO's science programs are now important to us and will be more so in the future. It well behooves us to support UNESCO in its international scientific activities, and to participate fully in the governance of UNESCO to assure it serves our interests as well as those of all mankind.

John Daly
(The opinions expressed here are the authors alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)