It has become commonplace over the past century to remark on the need of modern governments for access to high-level scientific advice. Various institutional forms have been developed through which this advice can be channelled. One of the most successful has been the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which originated in the US government's need for guidance on military technologies during the First World War. Now the emergence of a set of trends and issues identified with ‘globalization’ — ranging from genetically modified foods to the common challenges of science education — has triggered an attempt to reproduce this success at the international level.

This week, representatives from 80 academies of science around the world are meeting in Tokyo to endorse the creation of an InterAcademy Council. The purpose of this body, according to the committee that is drafting a proposed constitution, would be “to facilitate the provision of advice and recommendation on issues of global importance for those organizations and governments formally requesting such an input”. Bruce Alberts, the president of the NAS, a prime instigator of the move, has suggested the need to address a fundamental question: “How can the world's scientists ensure that rationality, rather than misinformation, forms the basis for decision-making in this ever more confusing world?”

Anyone who doubts the pertinence of such a question need look no further than South Africa, currently embroiled in a heated debate over an issue that many scientists regard as long since resolved — whether there is a causal relationship between HIV and AIDS (see page 105). But there are also good reasons for scepticism. Do international bodies such as United Nations agencies operate in such a way that ‘science-based’ advice — however impartial — will be of practical use to them? Do sponsors exist ready to commit the type of funds that will be required for in-depth studies of controversial topics? Can an international body that works through consensus operate with the speed and flexibility necessary to address urgent issues on the global agenda? Can duplication be avoided with other bodies, such as the International Council for Science (ICSU)? Will the strong US influence undermine claims to regional balance? And, perhaps most importantly, do the institutions of science retain sufficient authority in political circles to make the operation worthwhile?

There are no simple answers. Those responsible admit that they face major hurdles, but express optimism, based partly on enthusiasm from parts of the scientific community and partly on informal soundings with potential sponsors. Others, while harbouring doubts, are ready to go along with the project in the hope that even partial success will be worthwhile. Time will deliver the ultimate verdict.