The new President of the United Nations General Assembly, Chapa Krue, last month inaugurated the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly Speech This suggests that science may play a more prominent role in the policy-making machinery of the United Nations, at least during its tenure. Combined with an earlier and more substantial step by the UN’s chief diplomat, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, this is a welcome opportunity for more research-informed policy making.
The most important things first. Many parts of the UN system already rely heavily on scientific advice. Specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program recruit, contract or consult researchers at all levels. Individual UN conventions, such as the biodiversity and climate conventions, are reported by bodies that issue scientific advice, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers around the world are involved in studying, advising or monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the United Nations’ plan for the world to reduce poverty and achieve sustainability.
But science has a more limited role in the central policy-making of the United Nations, in both the executive arm and the legislative branch. A year ago, Guterres, who heads the executive branch of the United Nations and is based in New York City, set out to change that. His agenda for his second term (2022-2026) includes many science-based issues, not least climate, the global green economy and the Sustainable Development Goals. His office has looked at how science-to-policy advice works in more than 90 countries and institutions, with the goal of creating a structure that bridges gaps in current scientific advice, translates science into effective policy, and is truly relevant to decision-making.
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This wouldn’t be the first time someone in the Guterres role had created a formal scientific advisory mechanism. Many models have been tried over the years. Guterres inherited a scientific advisory board set up by his predecessor Ban Ki-moon. The Office of the Secretary-General evaluated these efforts and found that they did not affect decision-making or policy. The office says the next step will be to consult leaders and experts across the United Nations, before settling on how to put together a network of scientific advice that the Secretary-General can draw on on a regular basis.
Kőrösi said he wants scientists to help the GA “with knowledge from microscopes to microphones”. One way to achieve this could be to create an office or mechanism through which members of the assembly can access expertise to inform their decisions, just as scientific offices support many national parliaments around the world. It’s still early days for Korosi’s move, and we need to see more details – like the names of the countries it supports. But there is no doubt that it would be a first for the UN legislature, if possible.
The General Assembly is akin to the parliament of countries. It sets the UN budget and discusses and approves resolutions on crises and conflicts. Crucially, it is separate from the executive (Guterres et al.). It is sometimes derided as an expensive talk shop – often by people in powerful nations – but it is the only part of the United Nations that gives every country a voice. This level of inclusion is paying off. In 2015, it was the General Assembly (not a specialized agency) that signed the SDGs. This endorsement ensured that the objectives became part of the institutional structure of politics, business and civil society in member states.
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Kőrösi is not a new idea. Innovation studies researcher Calestous Juma, one of the first executive secretaries of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, recommended in a landmark report 20 years ago, called Knowledge and diplomacy: scientific advice in the United Nations system. Juma, who is originally from Kenya, suggested this as a way for representatives of all UN member states to have access to the best available evidence before their deliberations.
The main question is, who will pay? If the General Assembly sets the UN budget, can it vote to fund such an office? Often, it is the most powerful nations in the United Nations that fund science. If all countries want such an office, they have to find ways to pay for it.
Some observers are concerned about the duplication of scientific advice already in the United Nations, and potential clashes with Guterres’ efforts. It is undeniable that wings of the UN system often struggle to work in harmony. The two offices will need a constructive relationship, but they have different roles. When the UK Parliament created the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, few made the argument that it would repeat existing advice given to the UK government’s executive agencies.
For any system of scientific advice to be effective, says Chris Tyler, director of research and policy at University College London and former director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, it must be included in both the executive and legislative branches. “If you want to change the weather, you deal with the executive branch, but if you want to change the climate, you need to talk to the legislature.”
Ideally, Guterres and Korosi’s initiatives would reinforce each other to create a strong and relevant voice for science at the heart of UN policy-making. Not only would it be welcome, but it would be timely. The pandemic has demonstrated the value of science and innovation. As the world grapples with food security, climate change and other pressing challenges, a strong voice is needed more than ever.
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