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Trump’s UNESCO exit draws critics, but will have little immediate impact

To the dismay of many researchers, the U.S. government announced last week that it would formally withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) based in Paris. The decision—which is not expected to cause major disruptions in UNESCO’s science programs—comes roughly 6 years after the United States stopped contributing funds to the organization because of its recognition of Palestine, and 4 years after the United States lost its UNESCO voting rights.

In a statement issued on 12 October, the U.S. Department of State cited three reasons for its decision: UNESCO has an “anti-Israel bias,” needs “fundamental reform,” and the United States has a mounting financial debt to the organization that, under U.S. law, it cannot pay.

UNESCO expressed “profound regret” at the decision, which will take effect on 31 December 2018. The organization’s director-general, Irina Bokova, highlighted UNESCO’s “interaction with the United States Geological Survey, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with United States professional societies, to advance research for the sustainable management of water resources, agriculture,” as examples of valuable joint work.

Many observers slammed the withdrawal as another sign of President Donald Trump’s administration’s disregard for science and international collaboration. “By leaving UNESCO, Trump confirms his contempt for science and the world,” wrote Marie-Cécile Naves, a French political scientist associated with the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, a think tank in Paris, in an opinion column on 13 October.

In a more softly worded statement, Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider, said: “The continued retrenchment of the U.S. administration from active participation in international diplomacy efforts and dialogue is deeply concerning to the scientific community.”

The U.S. withdrawal will have little immediate impact. In October 2011, UNESCO’s member countries voted to admit Palestine as a member, triggering a U.S. law that cuts off U.S. funding for international organizations that recognize an independent Palestinian state. After several years without paying its dues—$78 million in 2011, or about 20% of UNESCO’s budget—the United States lost its voting rights in 2013 and became a de facto observer state, able to attend meetings, but not vote in them. Despite its withdrawal, the United States has asked to stay involved as an official observer state.

UNESCO has adapted to the loss of U.S. funds. The organization has a fairly small staff and budget, notes Alec Boksenberg, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and former chair of the U.K. National Commission for UNESCO. About 10% of its budget, or about $67 million, was earmarked for the natural sciences programs in 2016–17, according to UNESCO’s 4-year program.

“It is not a substantive funder,” Boksenberg says. Most programs aren’t funded by UNESCO’s own budget, but run and are paid for by member countries with UNESCO’s encouragement, he adds. “UNESCO can’t make policy, but can help people make policy through [scientific] evidence.”

This is the second time the United States has withdrawn from UNESCO. In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan cut formal ties with the group, citing concerns with what he saw as a pro-Soviet bias at the organization. The United States didn’t formally rejoin until 2003. But during that 19-year hiatus, the United States “remained engaged” in what it considers UNESCO’s priority science programs: the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which includes coordination on an international tsunami warning system, and the International Hydrological Programme, which focuses on freshwater management, says the U.S. Mission to UNESCO, based in Paris.

This new withdrawal “will not kill” these programs or UNESCO itself, but is a “great shame,” Boksenberg says. UNESCO is imperfect, he says, but remains a “body to cherish.”