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Science and the multilateral system

In this section for submissions by our Fellows, Sir Peter Gluckman ONZ KNZM FRSNZ FMedSci FRS discusses, as President of the International Science Council (ISC), the history, partnerships and current activities of the ISC.

International scientific collaboration has a long history – the first organised multilateral science expeditions in the 18th century related to establishing the solar unit (the distance of the sun to earth). This enterprise led to James Cook’s visit to Tahiti, which had so much consequence for Aotearoa. Even earlier in the 17th century, the Royal Society in London had established the position of foreign secretary and the first regular scientific journal; both efforts aimed at promoting scientific collaboration beyond boundaries. 

The International Science Council (ISC) is the descendent of one of the world’s oldest non-governmental organisations. Its first ancestor was the International Association of Academies formed in 1899. It merged in 1931 with the International Research Council (formed in 1919 to represent disciplinary natural science unions) to form the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the global union of scientific academies and disciplinary unions. This in turn merged with the International Social Science Council (ISSC, itself formed in 1952 under the auspices of UNESCO) in 2018 to form the ISC, with its headquarters in Paris, France. The ISC itself is an umbrella organisation, embracing more than 180 international science bodies. Its members include the scientific academies including Royal Society Te Apārangi, the disciplinary scientific unions, social science association and many other scientific organisations. Many kiwi scientists have been highly active in its various committees and activities. At various times over this history, its ancestors have been somewhat inward looking; one impetus behind forming the ISC was to emphasise its role of being the global voice for science.  

The history of ISC’s predecessor, ICSU, includes being a key sponsor of the International Geophysical Year in 1957 – a high point of science collaboration in the Cold War and a key element of the Antarctic being preserved for science. In 1985, at the Villach conference organised by the World Meteorological Organisation, UN Environmental Programme and ICSU, scientists produced the first comprehensive international assessment of the environmental impacts of atmospheric greenhouse gases (the SCOPE report), and called on governments to consider positive actions, to prevent too much global warming. This eventually led to the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988. Today, the ISC sponsors or co-sponsors along with UN agencies, a vast array of research programmes and collaborations, including the World Climate Research Programme, The Global Climate Observing System, Future Earth, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, the World Data System, CoDATA and The Global Research Programme on Inequality. The International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), which I chaired from its initiation in 2014 until this year, is another part of the ISC family and was developed at the request of ICSU. It has played a critical role in convening informal science diplomacy and being the primary global organisation developing concepts and training at the science-policy interface. 

The international science scene is complex and confusing, with a vast array of initiatives and stakeholders represented by an alphabet soup of organisations. In turn, it has led to a plethora of overlapping activities, which at times compete for resources and attention. The history of mergers that led to the creation of the ISC represents progressive attempts to ensure greater clarity and impact and the integration of all scientific domains – be they natural, social, data, technological, health or humanities. With integration comes a louder and more effective voice. Today, the ISC is the world’s largest international science organisation, and the only one of its kind to include the natural, social, human and medical sciences at that scale. 

The ISC itself has multiple responsibilities including the Committee on Freedom and Responsibility for Science where Royal Society Te Apārangi takes an important role in hosting its Senior Advisor. The ISC’s other activities include supporting capacity building in science and science systems in the global south, establishing principles for scientific conduct, taking the lead in initiating discussions about necessary evolutions of science and science systems (e.g.  its work with UNESCO on open science, its recent report on the future of scientific publishing). Through these activities, the ISC seeks to advance science as a global public good, the latter is a paper all scientists and scientific organisations should examine closely.  

The ISC has a more critical and still evolving role in ensuring science is heard in the multilateral system. It works closely with UN agencies and has a partnership to review the Human Development Index, with the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and with environmentally focused agencies such as UN Development Programme, World Meteorological Organisation and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.  But there are significant lacunae. While the ISC coordinates the Science and Technology Major Group which provides NGO input into the General Assembly of the UN, this is not particularly effective. We must collectively find better ways to integrate science more effectively into global policy making, and the ISC has a critical role to play in that respect. A recent Experts Committee has explored ways to make that interface much more effective and have submitted a report to the Governing Board. I expect much of my three year term as president will focus on implementing its recommendations. 

One area the ISC has led, in partnership with the WHO and UNDRR, is the global project on the long-term evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first report from that work will be released in coming weeks. It is focused on developing scenarios for the likely evolution of the pandemic across multiple domains including, but extending beyond health to social, economic, political, geostrategic and others. The policy implications will be the subject of a second report early in 2022. 

The ISC also convenes the Global Forum of Funders – an informal grouping of major national and international science funders and foundations, particularly those focused on sustainability. The forum met in 2019 and 2021. Through that, the ISC was charged with running a global consultation on gaps in the sustainability science landscape. The result of the consultation identified both research gaps and the need for new mechanisms to fund global mission-led research. The report Unleashing Science – Delivering Missions for Sustainability highlights the need for mission-led transdisciplinary research which is globally funded to avoid being captured by the mandate of individual funders and addresses the critical gaps expeditiously. This led the ISC, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, and former Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bukova to chair a global commission to develop the concept and explore how it could be operationalised. The membership is now being finalised.   

The ISC is the critical interface between the multiple components of the global scientific endeavour and the multilateral science and policy community. While it encompasses an enormous range of responsibilities, it is poorly understood within the scientific community – primarily a reflection of it being an umbrella organisation. We are looking for ways to expand the scientific community's understanding of its role, given that its mission statement is to be the global voice for science. One such way is through the project, Public Value of Science, where a recent partnership with BBC Storyworks resulted in a science hub showcasing ISC members and their science.

The ISC has completed its first three-year mandate, including managing the merger of the ISSC and ICSU. It can now focus on its ambitious action plan and enhance its communication with the science and multilateral policy communities. Its website is highly active with many reports on both the changing nature of science and the conduct of science and its impact; I commend it to all scientists irrespective of role or discipline.