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The process


To explore the potential development of international science in a changing economic, social, political, and environmental context in order to test the role and mission of ICSU and guide long‐term strategic choices aimed at building ICSU’s value in strengthening international science for the benefit of society. In addition, to help ICSU Members develop their own strategic activities.


Many organizations, nationally and internationally, are mapping future research priorities using foresight tools. ICSU does not wish to duplicate this work and has instead chosen to use a scenarios approach to focus on the following questions:

  1. Two decades from now, how will international collaboration in science help progress in science and benefit society?
  2. What will be the key drivers influencing science in the next 20 years and beyond?

Foresight as an essential element of strategic planning

Foresight analysis is a tool for ICSU’s strategic planning and is closely synchronized with development and use of the Strategic Plan 2012‐2017. This analysis complements other inputs to the strategic plan and also guides the longer (~20‐year) view of ICSU’s possible evolution. In this way, fundamental discussions on ICSU’s long‐term evolution can begin in a timely manner, and the nearer‐term strategic planning and implementation can begin to reflect these discussions as necessary.

Process as important as product

The process is designed to engage ICSU members, bodies, partners, and stakeholders to build shared understanding of ICSU’s current role and solicit viewpoints and, ultimately, buy‐in on the implications of a changing world for ICSU’s role in the future.

The product will be a "living" report with scenarios of possible futures for international science and their implications for ICSU’s role. The product is "living" in the sense that the future‐looking scenarios are dynamic and will be revisited and refined—or even rebuilt—during each six‐year strategic planning cycle as more is known about the evolving path of international science and its societal impact.

By examining the future of international science at regular intervals through a flagship product that is of broad interest as well as of direct value to ICSU and its Members, ICSU also aims to enhance understanding of its role and confirm its reputation as a forward‐looking, strategic organization.

What is foresight analysis? What are scenarios? How can they be useful?

Foresight analysis comes in many forms. Since 2000, much foresight has shifted away from a focus on explicit scientific priority setting and toward developing shared visions, assembling coalitions of actors, and mapping out multiple plausible futures that highlight the uncertainties and underline the need for strategic flexibility. This new emphasis is the approach taken in the ICSU foresight analysis.

Scenario building is a popular method for describing possible futures. A scenario is a tool for ordering perceptions about alternative future environments in which one’s decisions might be played out (P. Schwartz, 1996, in The Art of the Long View). Typically, three to five "exploratory" scenarios are developed, each distinguished by unique combinations of key drivers. The process of building these scenarios provides a structure in which to explore and learn from the interplay of key drivers and their attendant uncertainties. The result is a sense of preferences and what should be avoided. In general, scenarios offer a platform to expose and begin to address differing views among a large community about its shared future. For ICSU, such a process will inform collective strategic choices about its future role.

To connect the exploratory scenarios to ICSU’s strategic planning and subsequent implementation, an additional, "ideal future" scenario will be built from what is learned while building and testing the initial exploratory scenarios. This final scenario will explore the ICSU vision of the desirable long‐term evolution of international science and of ICSU’s role in achieving such a vision. From this will be drawn recommendations for action by ICSU.


The foresight analysis is led by ICSU’s Committee on Scientific Planning and Review (CSPR) and is being conducted from October 2009 to February 2012. On behalf of CSPR, a Task Team of six experts is advising and overseeing the development and implementation of the process by the ICSU Secretariat.

The analysis is being conducted in four consultative phases. Phase 1 involves a broad community consulation on key drivers. During Phase 2, the emphasis of consultations on draft  exploratory scenarios shifts from seeking individual perspectives to those of institutions—especially ICSU Members. Phase 3 involves the development of a draft  'ideal future' scenario and during phase 4 this is refined in consultation with Members.  The final report, with recommendations for ICSU action during and after implementation of the Strategic Plan 2012‐2017, will be in early 2012.

In the post‐analysis phase, CSPR will manage the implementation of the Strategic Plan 2012‐2017, using the outcomes of the foresight analysis to help prioritize actions. The  ICSU General Assembly in 2014 will act as a mid‐point check on these priorities, again informed by the foresight. Ultimately, this current round of foresight will also be a basis for shaping the subsequent Strategic Plan 2018‐2023. The continuing foresight will re‐examine the trends and uncertainties in drivers and offer more near‐term certainty on the best path for ICSU to take in strengthening international science for the benefit of society.

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