This week saw the sixth World Science Forum held in Rio de Janeiro – the first time this meeting has been held outside Hungary. Sponsored by UNESCO, ICSU, the Hungarian Government and Academy of Science, EASAC, AAAS – and hosted ably by the Brazilian Academy of Sciences – this biennial meeting attracts scientists (predominantly), policymakers and parliamentarians, and a handful of private sector organisations. Participants hailed from a broad range of geographic regions, particularly from Latin America; contrasting with the North American and European dominance of past meetings.
Another talking shop, perhaps, but one that reflects a growing acceptance from the global research community that it has a responsibility to help provide sustainable solutions to global problems. However, it (we) continues to struggle to convert well-meaning rhetoric into practical and effective political action. Recurrent themes included this problem of translation at the science-policy interface, the need to improve science education and communication, to tackle inequality, to work across disciplines, to share data, and to be inclusive and work with the public and private sectors. Many of these were included in the WSF 2013 declaration. There were stimulating sessions on research integrity and misconduct, science diplomacy and S&T for disaster risk reduction – all of which are pertinent to our own on-going policy work.
From a Society perspective, this meeting provided an opportunity to contribute to discussions on multilateral dialogue and cooperation, make new friends and contacts, and advertise our projects and schemes. The UK was represented by a relatively small number of individual scientists, as well as the Society and British Council, but my impression is that there is some scepticism on the value of these types of meetings.
Looking forward, these different but similar global science meetings – now joined by South Korea-UNESCO cooperation on the establishment of a Global Innovation Forum (its first meeting in Korea next year) – need to find ways of minimising duplication and rhetoric, and maximising the practical benefit of science to society. Further, the proliferation of international organisations professing to represent the interests of the global research community (ICSU, UNESCO, IAP, IAC,TWAS) are all keen to raise their profile in science policy. To do this, they will need to raise funds from their respective members and external (e.g. philanthropic) organisations, competing with each other for a limited pool of funders. If we don’t organise ourselves more effectively, then it seems almost inevitable that we will continue to talk earnestly about important issues but that no-one will achieve their ambitions to change our planet for the good.
The next WSF will return to Hungary in 2015 and then be hosted by Jordan in 2017 (this week’s meeting concluding with a typically passionate address by HRH Princess Sumaya), critically engaging a different part of the world on important issues for global science.