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US academy proposes global science advisory body

13 May 1999

[WASHINGTON] The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is promoting plans for the creation of an InterAcademy Centre, intended to act as a mechanism for setting up and running international panels of top-level scientific, engineering and health experts.

Such expert panels would be set up on demand to advise global institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank on issues of critical importance to them.

Describing the plans for the new body in his address to the annual meeting of the academy, its president, Bruce Alberts, said that it would operate as an international version of the academy's own National Research Council. This was set up in 1916 to carry out detailed studies both for the academy and for the US government.

According to academy officials, detailed discussions of how such a body might operate - and where it might turn to for financial and intellectual support - are likely to be actively discussed with delegations attending the World Conference on Science in Budapest. Many of the panels' members are likely to be taken from or nominated by the members of other scientific academies around the world.

In his presidential address to the annual meeting of the NAS on 26 April, Alberts said that he was keen for the academy to move assertively into the international arena "to ensure that the type of science and technology advice that so wisely informs policy at home can help inform decisions abroad".

In particular, he pointed out that four years ago, the academy had taken a first step in global collaboration when it joined with the scientific academies of other nations to create the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP), an informal network now totaling 80 academies.

It had also developed a web-site to promote rapid communication between these academies as they prepare for a May 2000 Conference of Academies in Tokyo, which will address "the many opportunities and challenges for scientists as the world accommodates an estimated 10 billion people in the 21st century".

As for the creation of the new InterAcademy Centre, Alberts pointed out at that in the years ahead, policy-making institutions all over the world will face increasingly complicated issues involving questions of scientific validity and balance. "The world badly needs an impartial mechanism, based only on science, to promote smarter decision-making on such issues as agricultural strategies for Africa, safe drinking water in Bangladesh and energy options for Asia," he said.

"The world's academies and their counterpart organizations are the ideal institutions for providing independent, credible, timely, multinational advice on a broad range of such issues -- and we are presently working to help them accept this important responsibility.

In his speech, Alberts also urged the world's scientists to work together to create a communication network specifically designed to empower individual scientists and scientific organizations with valuable knowledge and skills. In particular, he suggested that that the world's major scientific organizations cooperate on a two-part strategy.

Firstly, this would focus on connecting all scientists to the World Wide Web, where necessary by providing subsidized Internet access through commercial satellite networks. And secondly, it would involve taking responsibility for generating an array of "scientifically validated knowledge resources", made available free on the Web, in preparation for a time when universal Internet access for scientists is achieved in both developing and industrialized nations.

"By connecting all scientists in the world to each other and by providing them with rapid access to invaluable information stores, we aim to increase both the potential value of scientists to their societies and their status in the eyes of their governments and fellow citizens," Alberts said.

"We will thereby also promote the world-wide diffusion of scientific values. And with scientific values we shall spread tolerance and democracy, until they encompass all of the people on this globe".

Connecting scientists to each other, however, was only the first step. "Scientists everywhere must use these initial connections as a tool for spreading their knowledge, skills, and values throughout their own nations, including their local communities," he said. "By taking full advantage of new information technologies, the scientific community has an unprecedented opportunity to close the vast 'knowledge gap' between all peoples."

For further extracts from Alberts' presidential address to the NAS, delivered on 26 April 1999, click here. The full version can be found on the academy's website.

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