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The 'S' in UNESCO:
Today more than ever

Ismail Serageldin

Vice president of the World Bank
Chairman, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)

'UNESCO can provide a unique forum where the societies and nations of the world can address the issues posed by the new scientific revolutions'

Over half a century ago, Sir Julian Huxley - later to become the first director general of UNESCO - and a number of colleagues said correctly that the new organization, then in the process of being set up, could not be limited to education and culture, for neither fully subsumed science in its fullest sense.

Today, who would question the wisdom of their decision to put the 'S' in UNESCO? We live in a world where all lives are increasingly affected by science. Globalization and the relentless movement toward a knowledge-based society brings the promise of longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives. They also bring the perils of greater inequities.

For there is a real danger that the benefits occurring under a proprietary science regime could bring more and more to the privileged few, rather than serve the needs of the billions of marginalized poor and their children. There is also a very real risk that developing countries will not be able to adjust fast enough to the needs of the competitive global economy of science-based production and knowledge-based income.

Today, a revolution is taking place in the biological sciences, fuelled by groundbreaking work in molecular genetics, phenomenal advances in informatics and computing, and the enormous investments in biotechnology research. The benefits of that revolution must be harnessed for the interests of the poor and the environment.

Today, we live in a time of unmatched opportunities. We can dream of new scientific breakthroughs and new products that can help humanity as never before. New, higher-yielding plants that are more environment friendly, new remedies for killer diseases, edible vaccines, single cell proteins to feed cattle and clean wastes, hyper-accumulating plants to take toxins out of the soil, expanding forests and habitats so that more species can thrive, and so much more.

We can dream of a future of sustainable development, where humans thrive in harmony with each other and with the environment. But there is no guarantee that the products of the new breakthroughs of science will not transgress against either nature or deeply held ethical views. Or that they will not exacerbate poverty, even as they hold the keys to reducing it.

Today is an exhilarating time for the biological sciences, similar to that experience by physics in the glorious 40 years between 1905 and 1945, when all the concepts were changed, from cosmology to quantum physics, from relativity to the structure of the atoms. We are decoding the very blueprints of life, and learning to manage the deployment and expression of genes. Like physics in the first half of this century, we are confronted by profound ethical and safety issues, complicated by the new issues of proprietary science.

Today, therefore, the need is greater than ever for UNESCO to reaffirm its great legacy. From Huxley, through the Man in the Biosphere (MAB) programme , to the major effort on bioethics headed by Madame Noel Lenoir, UNESCO can provide a forum where the societies and nations of the world can address the issues posed by the new scientific revolutions, and collectively map a course as we enter the uncharted waters of the next century.

UNESCO is the unique forum where these complex issues can be taken on, not by negotiations for a treaty, but by establishing the agenda for discussion, by correctly defining the problematique, and by identifying the actors that need to be associated with its solution.

UNESCO must take on a number of important issues that it is uniquely qualified to assist the international community in responding to. These include - but are not limited to:

  • Promoting science in the developing countries, despite the growing gap between North and South;
  • Fostering institutions capable of dealing with the enormous explosion of information and knowledge;
  • Developing true scientific collaborations between the industrialized and developing countries where the values of scientific inquiry will be nurtured;
  • Achieving balance between roles of the public and private sectors, and creating incentives required to harness the best research for the poor and the environment; and
  • Building consensus on the ethical, safety and proprietary aspects of the new sciences.

The World Conference on Science has the potential to be more than a social gathering at which the powerful and the knowledgeable exchange niceties. It is also a unique opportunity for UNESCO to emphasize the 'S' in its name.

Will Budapest allow the engagement of these issues in a constructive manner, so that a common ground, rooted in our common humanity, can be found? Will it signal the start of a serious dialogue that will define the parameters of common action, as well as approaches for nations and societies to cope better with the ethical, safety and proprietary issues of the new science? Will it be the first step in making the next millennium the Millennium for so many of the less fortunate on this planet and their children?

It can. And it must. The future beckons. We must have the courage of our convictions, and the wisdom to act with sagacity.

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