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Home > Publications > Key ICSU Statements > UNESCO 35th General Conference: General Policy Debate (Oct 2009)

UNESCO 35th General Conference: General Policy Debate (Oct 2009)

Mr President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, It is my pleasure to be here at UNESCO as President of the International Council for Science. ICSU was established in 1931 and has been a partner of UNESCO from its outset. In this partnership, ICSU’s role is to represent the non-governmental global science community – ICSU has 117 national members, mainly academies of science, and 30 international disciplinary unions.

A strong link between this global scientific community and the intergovernmental system of UNESCO is crucial to delivering our joint goals and strengthening international science for the benefit of society. Ten years ago at the outset of Mr Matsuura’s leadership of UNESCO, our two organisations joined together to organise the World Conference on Science in Budapest. In just over a month’s time we will again come together in Budapest, with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, to assess the progress over the past decade and future prospects. Certainly one of the major challenges, in our new global knowledge society, is how to effectively link scientific information to policy making and societal needs. This is critical for all nations as we strive towards sustainable development. It must continue to be a high priority for both of our organisations. One of the major issues that came out of the World Conference on Science, and was subsequently emphasised at the World Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, was the recognition that the divide in scientific capacity between the North and the South needed to be urgently addressed. This urgency is even greater 10 years on. ICSU itself has responded to the challenge by establishing Regional Offices in Africa, Asia and Latin America and these Offices are already working closely with UNESCO’s regional structures. I look forward to a strengthening of these links over the next biennium. The ICSU-UNESCO partnership is inscribed in a Framework agreement that identifies our joint priorities. This joint commitment was renewed in 2008 and includes the following areas: environment, capacity building and science policy, natural disasters, ethics and science, linking science and policy, access to scientific information. ICSU is developing substantial initiatives in each of these areas. Unfortunately, I do not have the time here to go into detail on each of these but I would briefly mention three which I believe will be of major significance over the next biennium and beyond:

Integrated Earth system science

When my colleague, the then Executive Director of ICSU, Thomas Rosswall spoke at this equivalent General Policy Debate two years ago, he highlighted the Nobel peace prize, which had just been awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The international science programmes and necessary infrastructure, including observing systems that feed into the IPCC are sponsored by ICSU and many of these are co-sponsored with UNESCO and its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). These programmes have served the society well and we are optimistic that the unambiguous scientific evidence will enable brave decisions on carbon emissions by Governments in Copenhagen at the end of the year. However, the science of environmental change is far from finished and there are new challenges related to coupled-human-environment interactions, ecosystem services, resilience, adaptation and mitigation. These require new scientific approaches, integrating social and natural sciences. ICSU has initiated a ‘visioning exercise’ to identify the key scientific questions for the future and develop a strategic framework to address these. We need to be open-minded in this exercise and prepared to modify or change existing structures and programmes as necessary. UNESCO, as a co-partner in several of the programmes will, of course be involved in this visioning. And we ask for UNESCO’s full support in implementing change where this is called for.

Environmental hazards and disasters

After several years of scoping and planning, including close consultation with UNESCO, ICSU launched a new international and interdisciplinary programme on natural disasters at our General Assembly in Maputo in October 2008. This Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) programme is co-sponsored by the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC) and the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR). We look forward to welcoming UNESCO and its IOC as full partners and note with satisfaction the priority and resources that are being allocated to disasters in Major Programme II

Ecosystem services

In 2005 ICSU and UNESCO organised a press conference to publicise the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), which focussed attention on the importance of ecosystem services for human wellbeing. Subsequently, ICSU took the lead in exploring the scientific gaps that were identified in the MA and proposing a new international research programme to address these gaps. I am delighted that UNESCO and its Man and the Biosphere Programme will be a co-sponsor of this new Programme on Ecosystem change and Society (PECS)

Mr President,

To finish, I would like to look forward. I would congratulate UNESCO on the progress that has been made in response to some of the concerns that were raised in the external review of the Science Sectors – programmes II and III. Most notably, the increased emphasis on science policy is a very positive development. I expect that there will be continued progress over the next biennium to more fully integrate the activities across the science Divisions and Programmes as reflected in the relevant action lines. I also hope that critical areas such as science education and access to scientific data and information can be addressed in truly inter-sectoral initiatives. ICSU looks forward eagerly to working with the new leadership at UNESCO to ensure that science is given the high priority that is necessary to effectively address the major challenges that are facing our global society.

Thank You

Catherine Brechignac

ICSU President 2008-2011


1 Due to time restrictions, an abbreviated version of this statement was presented orally in the General Policy Debate at the General Conference


10 October 2009

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