An Academy That Knows No Borders?

BERN, SWITZERLAND--Behind the scenes of last week's World Economic Forum, science academy leaders from around the world took the first steps toward creating an international science organization. The proposed body, tentatively called the InterAcademy Council (IAC), would provide impartial scientific advice to international organizations.

The IAC would function in some ways as an international version of the U.S. National Research Council, which sets up scientific committees to advise the U.S. government under the auspices of the three U.S. national academies. Similarly, the United Nations or World Bank could ask the IAC to appoint international panels of leading researchers to address global issues such as the effect of genetically modified plants on agriculture, the threat of emerging infectious diseases, how to protect threatened ecosystems, or how to bridge the information divide between the world's rich and poor.

Participants in last week's meetings in Zurich and nearby Davos--which included the presidents of a dozen of the world's national science academies and several other officials--agreed on the general outlines of the IAC. For example, IAC membership would rotate among the 80 or so national science academies that are already loosely affiliated under the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP). A council would carry out such functions as naming the expert committees and approving the scope of studies requested by outside organizations.

Details will be hammered out by a working group of academy presidents or their equivalents from France, India, Germany, and Brazil, says biochemist Bruce Alberts, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The group will make its recommendations in Tokyo in May to the steering committee of the IAP.

The idea of such a global association gets a thumbs up from biochemist Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, head of Germany's DFG granting agency. He thinks the IAC "would be very useful." Winnacker, who attended the Davos meeting, adds: "The question is whether the U.N. or other international organizations would take advantage of it."