Peter Gluckmann

Peter Gluckmann, New Zealand Chief Scientific Advisor, at the ICSU General Assembly opening ceremony. (Credit: ICSU)

This week I flew half-way round the world to Auckland, New Zealand, as the Royal Society representative at the triennial General Assembly of the International Council for Science (ICSU).

The diplomatic function of science

At a pre-meeting on Science Diplomacy organized by Peter Gluckmann, the New Zealand Chief Scientific Advisor, I  managed a moderately intelligent intervention, reminding the group that the diplomatic function of science was not restricted to inter-governmental negotiation.

When Governments either cannot (or will not) talk to each other, academies can maintain scientific links and conversations that ease the process of re-forging relationships.

Humphry Davy (accompanied by the young Michael Faraday) went to Paris to lecture to the French Academy at the height of the Napoleonic wars. The recent research agreement and Memorandum of Understanding for joint vulcanological work on Mt Paeku in North Korea is another example.

Engaging with policymakers

The assembly included a remarkable, probably unique collection of governmental scientific advisers including Mark Walport FRS, UK Chief Scientific Advisor, and Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisor to EU Commission President Barroso.

They stressed the following points about engaging with policymakers:

  • the importance of access to the highest political level
  • strong support (sadly lacking in Anne Glover’s case)
  • the Chief Scientific Advisor role in bringing in expertise from the science community
  • answering politicians questions directly rather that responding – “what you really mean, minister is…”
  • engaging with policymakers at the beginning not the end of projects
  • applying a broad definition of science to include social science

Who do I phone when I need to talk to science?

The General Assembly meeting included a timely external review of ICSU. Timely because it raises the question of what ICSU’s role is and how it might serve to provide a global voice for science.

This is important as the landscape of science bodies  purporting to speak for international science becomes ever more complex. How can ICSU define its purpose more precisely, in relation to IAP and others?

ICSU’s ambitious 10 year “Future Earth” programme comes into play here, affording it a technical advantage at least on sustainability issues. But can it work or is it too top down? Is there too much process, is it too complex organisationally? Is there too little frame for creative science? How will the budget work?  These are all important challenges that need to be addressed.

On the second day of the General Assembly I was bemused by the diversity and complexity of ICSU projects. I pressed hard, with much head-nodding round the hall, on several priorities: that ICSU should focus on programmes where it has unique strengths (its diverse unions) rather than ones where others might be better placed. Why, for instance, should it focus on “urban health” when there is an inter academy medical panel? Why should it focus on “sustainable energy” when there is a council of academies of engineering?

Most of ICSU’s projects have profound policy implications, but unfortunately my sense is that few reflect the lessons about engaging with policymakers at an early stage.

The big challenge for all of us is how to integrate the efforts of the  numerous and often confusing international networks to provide a recognised global voice for science. To parody former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: “Who do I phone when I need to talk to science?”.

And in doing this, we need to work out how we best communicate it to the world’s policymakers through ICSU’s new President Gordon McBean and the Executive Board. These are challenging but exciting times.