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Science in an International and Humanitarian Context

Natarajan Ishwaran, director of the UNESCO Ecology and Earth Sciences division, says that the first UNESCO director-general, the distinguished zoologist Julian Huxley, fought hard to put science on UNESCO's agenda. Today, UNESCO spends one-seventh of its $610 million budget on science and employs about 200 scientists. About half of them are based at the Paris headquarters; the rest work in one of five regional and 51 field offices around the world. The job of these scientists is to co-ordinate international efforts between researchers and the public, the media, and international governments. "We are brokers," says Ishwaran, "between science and everything else."

UNESCO is keen to recruit young scientists, and those hoping to swap research for a career in intergovernmental work will find some opportunities there--provided they are not looking for too much job security.

Finding your way in

UNESCO offers different entry points (see box) to people who are already involved in international research and can contribute their own ideas and contacts. Because these jobs are truly international, one of the most important credentials is the ability to speak several of the six United Nations languages. With 200 to 500 applicants for every job, competition is comparable to what it is for good faculty science jobs--which isn't surprising considering the tax-free pay, 30 days of annual leave, expenses to travel home, and for dependent children extra pay and educational grants all the way through university. The nature of the work is attractive too. "Intergovernmental work is seductive to young scientists," says Patricio Bernal, an assistant director-general at UNESCO, because it has the potential to change things for the better, on a global scale.

An important remit of UNESCO's natural sciences programme is promoting environmental sustainability, including nature conservation, ocean monitoring, renewable energy, and water resources. In addition to projects in the other basic and engineering sciences, UNESCO also is involved in HIV research, science education, and women in science issues. UNESCO also has a social and human sciences programme that tackles bioethics, democracy, security, and human rights.

A big downside of working at UNESCO, however, is that jobs there are seldom permanent; contracts usually run from 6 months to 2 years. For young scientists looking for a stint away from the lab, it's a great opportunity: They can develop excellent international contacts and gain a better understanding of how their science can be applied to society. But scientists seeking long-term security can probably find better opportunities elsewhere. UNESCO staff may get their contracts renewed while their projects are ongoing, but when the project ends they have to apply for a new post. These days, even senior staff at UNESCO are not guaranteed jobs for life. Staff who would have been given permanent employment in the past now work on 2-year contracts that get renewed upon positive assessment. "The organisation is in downsizing mode," says Ishwaran.

The contingent nature of UNESCO employment isn't a bad thing, Bernal says, because scientists coming in fresh from research are most effective. Bernal encourages scientists seeking an international policy career to wait until they are well established in science and come in at the top level, as he did. "You burn out if you work here too long," he says. "It is such a heavy bureaucracy, and things can be so slow when you are dealing with governments." Early-career scientists working under Bernal are told not to see UNESCO as a lifetime employer but, rather, as a place for a short career interruption. "I am strongly opposed to them staying more than 3 or 4 years," he says. "These are brilliant minds. They will sacrifice their scientific careers if they are cut off too long from the natural source of new ideas."

Still, it is possible to forge a career within UNESCO; Ishwaran, for example, has been working there for 20 years.

UNESCO Entry Opportunities at a Glance

  • Internships: short-term, unpaid posts. Apply to UNESCO directly, stating which programme you want to work on.

  • Associate Experts: 1-year, once-renewable postings to headquarters or a field office. Apply through national governments.

Check UNESCO's employment Web site for current opportunities.

A climate scientist at UNESCO

Albert Fischer, a Swiss-American oceanographer who speaks French and English and is learning Spanish, has been working for 2 years at the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in Paris, where he co-ordinates a group of academic scientists charged with deploying a global ocean-observation system to help predict the climate. Fischer recently presented work to a meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. "It was very exciting," says Fischer. "I was out of my realm. Here in Paris, I work alongside other oceanographers. There, I was presenting to ministers of state."

Albert Fischer

Fischer gained a Ph.D. in physical oceanography from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the United States in 2001. He went looking for work at the IOC while he was finishing a postdoc on climate models in Paris. "I always had an interest in the intersection of science and policy," he says. "I chose oceanography as a student because I wanted to do something that felt relevant. But as a research scientist, you have to be such a specialist to make any progress." His generalist tendencies drew him toward the policy side.

Fischer is on an annually renewed junior-professional contract. "I was lucky," he says, "because someone was leaving at that time"--2 years ago--"and I applied for their post. Openings like this are rare." Just 55 natural scientists work at the UNESCO head office and 44 others at offices around the world. At his interview, Fischer impressed Bernal--who, in addition to being an assistant director-general at UNESCO is also executive secretary of the IOC and, hence, Fischer's boss. "He asked us some tough questions," says Bernal, "and he had his eyes wide open, knowing the limitations of this work."

In his new job, Fischer is often frustrated by the slow pace at which things move. "The biggest challenge is the UNESCO administration itself," he says. "Sometimes it feels like we're sliding backward. You need to have faith that we'll make progress fast enough to react to climate change." Despite the slow pace, he prefers intergovernmental work to academic research. "It's not a very stable job, and I know Bernal thinks I've made the leap from research too early. But I really enjoy having this broad overview." Should his contract not be renewed at UNESCO, Fischer can seek another job co-ordinating international oceanography projects outside government.

A UNESCO hydrogeologist

It was the mandate of the organisation--building peace between nations--that attracted Annukka Lipponen of Finland to UNESCO in the first place. Lipponen speaks three languages fluently--English, Finnish, and Swedish--and she is learning Russian and French. She plans to stay at UNESCO.

Annukka Lipponen

As a Finn, Lipponen qualified for the Young Professionals Programme, a route into UNESCO restricted to nationals from under-represented countries. Her long-term career prospects may also be better, because countries are entitled to a certain number of posts according to their financial contribution to UNESCO.

Before applying to UNESCO in 2002, Lipponen gained an M.Sc. in geology from the University of Helsinki. She then spent 3 years at the Finnish Environment Institute working on groundwater research while doing a Ph.D. with the University of Helsinki. She finished the Ph.D. out of hours after starting work at UNESCO.

An M.Sc. is enough to win a Young Professional post at UNESCO, with a 9-month probationary period and a chance to secure a 2-year, renewable contract, but a Ph.D. is highly desirable for those seeking a longer-term stay, because UNESCO staff with long-term career prospects are encouraged to apply for other jobs within the organisation and to move to a field office after a few years. "A Ph.D. is needed for many jobs within UNESCO, and it's definitely an asset" for jobs in natural sciences, says Lipponen.

Today, Lipponen is charged with strengthening the capacity to manage water resources in the arid and semiarid areas of the world. She works with a group that is developing indicators for the status of groundwater resources, including their quality, quantity, and sustainability of use. She loves interacting with some of the world's best scientists. "You have to be culturally sensitive, though," she says. In Iran, for example, women must wear headscarves and would never shake hands with a man. "It really helps if you follow what's happening in world politics."

An environmental economist

Another common route into UNESCO is an unpaid internship; it doesn't guarantee a job, but it offers opportunities to make contacts and gain expertise, which increases chances of employment. French-Algerian environmental economist Meriem Bouamrane took this route.

Bouamrane, who speaks French and English, spent a 1-month internship at UNESCO gathering data for her master's dissertation. She was working on UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme, which aims to align economic and social development with nature conservation. The internship inspired Bouamrane to do economic research in the field; she gained a Ph.D. from the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry in Sumatra in 1996. "Meriem made an effort to articulate her own academic career around Man and Biosphere questions," says Ishwaran, now her boss.

After receiving her Ph.D., Bouamrane took a UNESCO Associate Expert post in Dakar, Senegal, to manage the Man and Biosphere Programme in West Africa. Her job was supported by the French government for the first 2 years, after which she secured funding for an extra year from the Global Environment Facility, an international environmental fund, to use West Africa as a demonstration project for the participation of local communities in the management of biosphere reserves.

When that project ended, Bouamrane applied for other UNESCO posts. Today, after 6 years with UNESCO, she works at the Paris headquarters, but she is keen to return to a field office. "It is really valuable to gain experience in the field and at headquarters," she says. "The challenges are very different."

Bouamrane advises young scientists who want to develop a career at UNESCO to gain a solid background--and a strong network--in their field of expertise. "You have to know the best people in your field so you can build on those networks," she says. An open mind is also key. "UNESCO considers itself a laboratory of ideas, so you have to be able to anticipate new concepts" and get diverse groups of people to develop a shared vision, she says.

Lynn Dicks is a science writer and editor based in the U.K.

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