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UNESCO Panel Takes High-Level Look at Helping Development

PARIS—Science and sustainable development were the buzz words at the first meeting of a new advisory panel to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the end of last week. The charge to the High Panel on Science for Development is to identify trends in science and technology and to help UNESCO sharpen the focus of its work in promoting sustainable development, according to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who addressed the meeting. The brief is broad, as the panel has been asked to include in its discussions all the organization's work in the natural sciences, humanities, and engineering, as well as find links between science and culture, education, and communications and look for new partners in the private sector, civil society, and academia.

Among the challenges on the table are to pinpoint the best ways of harnessing science and technology for local economic development, incorporating indigenous knowledge systems into the global scientific base, wiping out disparities in access to resources, and preventing brain drain from developing countries. The panel is also to define UNESCO's role in promoting international cooperation in areas such as climate change and the climatic impact of the oceans, Bokova said at the meeting. Sustainable development "requires holistic approaches that cross disciplinary and policy domains and make the most of synergies between them," she said. "Better understanding is the first step to anticipating developments and designing better public policy."

The panel, which will meet here twice a year, is made up of 24 scientists and academics drawn from a multitude of scientific disciplines and from all regions of the world. Members include Susan Avery, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; José Sarukhán Kermez, national coordinator of Mexico's National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity; Ahmadou Lamine N'Diaye, president of the African Academy of Science; Gong Ke, president of Nankai University; and Rolf Heuer, director general of CERN. But group deliberately has no chairperson, at least for the moment. "This is the way U.N. high panels usually work, Gretchen Kalonji, UNESCO assistant director-general for science told ScienceInsider. "But we may well change our methods of working as time goes by."

The 15 of the 24 panelists who attended the meeting debated two topics: "mobilizing international science to address pressing interdisciplinary challenges facing our societies" and "models for capacity building in science, technology, and innovation." A recurring theme throughout the presentations and the panel's discussions was the growing demand for interdisciplinary work. "It is important by the nature of the problems," says physicist Jose Mariano Gago, Portugal's minister of science, technology, and higher education, who moderated the debate. "Many can't be solved without it."

The question of data-intensive science, which offers opportunities for developing countries but requires huge infrastructure investment, was also raised several times, Gago noted during his summing up. "What is new [in education] is that a back-to-basics policy is no longer sufficient," Gago added. "Higher education will be a major driving force for the next decades." But knowledge is not necessarily the whole answer, Bokova noted, citing Albert Einstein's declaration that imagination is more important than knowledge.