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Annual Report 2004

Message from the President and Executive Director

Goverdhan Mehta will take over as President of ICSU in October, 2005 and so this is the last message from the current leadership. This is an opportune moment to reflect on some of the key themes of the past three years and the future challenges for ICSU.

Science for Policy

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the ICSU President, Professor Yoshikawa, declared that “The S&T community accepts its responsibility to address the issues of sustainable development…” In 2003, at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, ICSU picked up on the same theme and declared that the science community is willing to play its part in bridging the knowledge divide between nations. These messages have been reinforced in the subsequent discussions at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, in which ICSU has played a very active role. The UN dialogues are an important forum for bringing together science and society to identify research needs in relation to socio-economic development. There is a continuing and important role for ICSU to play in planning and coordinating interdisciplinary research in areas such as energy, water, climate change, biodiversity. However, the research that is necessary to integrate the three pillars of sustainable development – environmental social and economic – still needs to be developed further. This cannot be achieved by the science community in isolation and it presents a major challenge for the future.

Policy for Science: Capacity Building and Collaboration

The importance of science for development has been emphasized in a number of high profile reports over the past 12 months. The report of the UN Task Force on Science and Technology and Innovation, the InterAcademy Council report “Inventing a Better Future” and, most recently, Tony Blair’s UK Commission on Africa have all highlighted the need for long-term investment in scientific capacity building.

It is against this background that two very significant changes in ICSU’s structure took place during 2004. An agreement was signed with the National Research Foundation, South Africa, to establish the first ICSU Regional Office in Pretoria. Progress was also made in identifying host countries for Offices in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, and the Arab Region. 2004 was also marked by the inaugural meeting of the new Policy Committee on Developing Countries. These changes will ensure that ICSU is fully aware of the needs and priorities of developing countries and that capacity building activities of the whole ICSU family are designed accordingly.

A critical aspect of building scientific capacity is international collaboration. The free exchange of scientists and scientific data and information are crucial for scientific progress and for ensuring that local problems are addressed using the best science. Compared with this time last year, the visa situation for scientists wishing to enter the USA, has improved considerably. The pressure of the international science community, including ICSU and its Members, has been instrumental in this but we all need to remain vigilant.

New Science Programmes

The importance of ICSU as an institution that is uniquely able to plan and coordinate major international science programmes, was illustrated in 2004 with the publication of “A Framework for the International Polar Year 2007-08”. At the General Assembly in 2002, a fourth International Polar Year more than a century after the first one was simply an aspiration in the minds of a few dedicated scientists. ICSU picked up on this, brought these scientists together, consulted very broadly with the international community, and two years later produced a Framework plan that has been universally adopted. The excitement and enthusiasm generated by the International Polar Year is enormous. Natural and social scientists are planning new trans-national collaborations that can be expected to inform and shape polar science for decades to come.

The end of 2004 was marked by the tragic earthquake and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. This served as a vivid reminder to us all that that science still has a long way to go. It is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to predict and prevent all natural disasters but in the aftermath of the Indonesian earthquake, it is clear that scientific knowledge has a key role to play in developing more effective mitigation strategies. ICSU’s initial response to the tsunami was to work with its Scientific Unions to produce a position statement that fed into the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe in January this year. A scoping study for a new international interdisciplinary programme on natural and man-made hazards is also being launched and should be completed for Members to consider at the General Assembly.

The Priority Area Assessment on Science and its Relation to Sustainable Development (ICSU, December 2003) outlined very clearly that a major challenge for ICSU is to further strengthen the involvement of social sciences in its activities. In 2004, ICSU cosponsored a workshop on “bridging scales” of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. How can you link knowledge about ecological and social systems at various scales? This is a methodological challenge but also throws up the more significant challenge of how to identify scientists willing to work outside their disciplinary box. Similar challenges, in another area, led to ICSU organizing a workshop on global socio-economic data as a contribution to the important inter-governmental initiative to develop of a global system of Earth observations.

Looking to the Future

At the General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro in 2002, Members requested that ICSU develop a strategic plan. In an organization like ICSU, which has never previously had a clearly articulated strategy, this has been a complex process. It has involved a number of in-depth reviews and assessments and many hours of voluntary work from busy scientists all over the world. In November, the Executive Board considered the first draft of the overall strategic plan for 2006-2011. We are optimistic that at the General Assembly in Suzhou in October this year, we will have an exciting strategic plan that lays out a clear vision for ICSU over the next six years. It must also provide a solid basis for attracting the additional financial and human resources that will be necessary to ensure that ICSU can continue play a lead role in strengthening international science for the benefit of society.

Jane Lubchenco

ICSU President 2002-2005

 

Thomas Rosswall

Executive Director
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