In a demonstration of how international negotiations should be done, 12 national science academies have issued two joint statements to the leaders of the G8 countries, who will meet at their annual summit in Russia next month. One endorses a reinvention of the world's disease surveillance system; the other calls for a major expansion of energy research to address a looming global crisis in energy supplies.

The statements were announced on 14 June by the academies of the G8 countries plus Brazil, China, India and South Africa. They follow the first such exercise at last year's Gleneagles summit in Britain, when Britain's Royal Society coordinated joint academy statements on climate change as well as capacity building for Africa.

It's a step towards the scientific community having a more effective voice at the political level.

The academies’ stronger role in international advocacy is a “new and extremely positive development”, says Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society. “It's a step towards the international scientific community having a more effective voice at the political level.”

Rees believes the academies' input influenced the outcome of last year's G8, which included greater debt relief for Africa. And he hopes the string of recommendations for disease surveillance and the energy crisis from the 12 academies (see 'What the academies want') will translate in firm pledges from this year's G8 meeting.

The academies argue that the size of global efforts in both infectious diseases and energy sourcing are out of touch with the scale of the problems. They lament the inadequacy of the current systems of national and international disease surveillance, which they describe as “multi-component and uncoordinated”. The threat of avian flu, they argue, should be a catalyst for investment in a more tightly coordinated global system, that in particular would see animal and human health experts working more closely together.

Likewise, Rees says the G8 must address what he describes as serious inadequacies in funding and incentives for energy research: “In relation to the scale of the problem, the R&D effort worldwide is unduly low.”

Although the G8 and other international political meetings are important for setting agendas and funding priorities, the academies recognize their shortcomings, says André Capron, foreign secretary of France's Académie des Sciences. In particular, he criticizes the “disappointing” habit of states in neglecting to honour pledges once they get home. At an avian-flu summit in Beijing in January, for example, countries pledged US$1.9 billion in grants and loans to a global action plan, but so far only $1 billion has been committed, and of that just $286 million has been spent. Donors also often insist that funds go to particular countries or projects, making it hard to organize a global plan that targets areas in greatest need.

G8 leaders: will they be in the mood to listen to the world's scientists? Credit: E. SUGITA/REUTERS

But Capron says scientists can only be “deliberately optimistic” about such realities, and hope to influence decisions “through constantly repeating the same messages, and making the scientific communities' positions known”. Rees agrees: “For 12 academies of leading countries to emphasize the importance of these issues is an important signal to governments that they need to be addressed.”

Consensus building

So how does one go about getting scientists from 12 countries to agree on hot topics such as avian flu and energy? Capron says two to three members of each academy met a few months ago in Moscow to thrash out ideas and produce draft statements. They took these home for discussion, then after much e-mailing about wording, joint texts were agreed. There was a “spontaneous consensus” on the major steps needed for infectious diseases, according to Capron, with a “more protracted” discussion on energy.

All Capron is prepared to say about initial disagreements on energy is that the United States differed with Europe (France in particular) on the degree of support for research into nuclear energy, compared with other technologies such as carbon sequestration. France is highly dependent on nuclear energy, and lacks the coal reserves of the United States. But these were “divergences” rather than “aggressive differences”, he says diplomatically.

This kind of collaboration among the academies will improve with time, he adds, in particular by better involving academy members in the process. Lack of consultation marred the first joint statements on climate change last year, when the Royal Society issued a press release with its own interpretation of the consensus statement, leading to cries of foul play and spin by its partners. Such teething troubles won't occur this year, assures Capron. He has now written rules on the procedures, which include requiring any press releases to be jointly agreed by all.