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Michael T. Clegg

Science for Global Development

The Role of Networks of Academies of Science

Michael T. Clegg, Professor at the University of California, Irvine, he is co-president of the Inter-American Network of Academies of Science (IANAS)

The first question I ask is quite simple: “Why is the voice of science fundamental to solving global issues today and in the future?” It is because science is the most successful form of knowledge creation. It deals exclusively with arguments based on evidence and results always need to be confirmed by others, by peers. It is always based on evidence that can be reproduced and confirmed. Science’s ethical system is crucial to the future well-being of humanity. The respect for evidence allows us to be part of a global community and speak a common language, the language of science. Science’s great value lies in its foundation on evidence, reproducibility and predictability.

The 21st century is one of the most challenging for mankind. We have great challenges related, for example, to population growth. By the year 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion. We now face climate changes that have enormous impact on everyone. There are challenges in food production, supply and quality assurance of water, in addition to power supply, which we will have to face in this transition.  We must also deal with land degradation, conservation of ecosystems and species, emerging diseases… These challenges will have to be faced by science.

Why should all nations want to promote science? There are many reasons. To promote solutions to national and international problems, for example. To create a workforce capable of competing in the global economy. To produce citizens capable of making wise decisions in a democracy. To create a “scientific temperament” in the nation, increasing tolerance and rationality.

Poor countries are increasingly lagging behind rich countries. Investment in R&D is less than 0.5% of GDP in poor countries, compared to over 2% of GDP in rich countries. Scientific and technological capacity is seen as a luxury by some governments. Rich countries have an average of 3,281 scientists and engineers per million people compared to 788 scientists and engineers per million people in middle-income countries. Rich countries obtain an average of 346 patents per million people compared to 10 patents per million people in middle-income countries.

And why are academies of science important? The academies are based on merit and represent the scientific leadership of a country. Academies are also usually self-renewing institutions, free from political interference. Academies have the credibility to inform the public and policymakers about impending problems and potential solutions.

What can academies of science offer? Problems are global, but  national or local governments must implement solutions.  Most nations have academies of science. The academies embody the independent voice of the national scientific communities and can establish the link between these communities and policymakers. There is a global agenda for academies of science. A global network can cross national boundaries to provide science-based solutions to global problems.

There is a new concept in terms of establishing networks of academies. The most effective global network of academies, the InterAcademy Panel (IAP), was founded in the late 1990s and represented an attempt to empower the academies of less developed countries so that they could have the role that some academies in developed countries had already obtained. The academies joined together to try to build those networks so that the knowledge generated in one academy could be transferred to the less favored or less developed nations, creating a global vision.

Within this global network, it is clear that the regions of the world are indeed very heterogeneous: in terms of culture, the environment and the different levels of economic development. In the IAP family, the notion that regional networks could be essential to addressing problems specific to the regions arose. Therefore, the regional networks of academies maintain the same spirit as the InterAcademy Panel and can develop and address the training needs in the countries and the academies based on national needs.

One of these regional networks is the Inter-American Network of Academies of Science (IANAS). It was able to launch regional programs on water resources, science education, and programs related to energy, and all of these programs are working well. It is perhaps the global network that best operates as a network.

What is the role of IANAS? It empowers and strengthens the academies and scientific communities in the Americas, not because increasing the power and strength of the academies and scientific communities in the hemisphere is important in itself, but to develop academies in countries that do not have them, to develop science and innovation in countries that lack these communities, to disseminate the reports of the Inter-American Council and the inter-academy programs in the region, and to communicate with regional governments and organizations of American states.

We believe that the academies of science are able to identify elements of science and technology that are important to national issues, summarizing what is known and working with both the private sector and the government. IAP and IANAS see science policies as active responsibilities, in addition to contributing to the knowledge and public understanding of science and improving education at all levels, especially science education. Lastly, but no less important, one of their objectives is to provide advice on priorities and modes of national support for research.

The agenda of the academies is the product of years of thought. They should provide advice on science and technology to governments. They should also provide information on science and technology issues that are important to the public. They must participate in national efforts to identify goals and priorities for science and technology and help the government assess the strengths and weaknesses of national competences, so that the desired science and technology objectives are achieved. They should encourage new centers of excellence that address nationally relevant research questions, in addition, of course, to reviewing national education programs and science institutions.

So, what is the key point? The key point is that it is critically important that science and scientists achieve a much greater level of  influence worldwide. The key point is to make international scientific organizations effective so that their agendas are truly activist. The key issue is that science is essential to any strategy for sustainable global development.

This and the following articles are the result of talks given at the first of seven preparatory meetings for the 2013 World Science Forum, held at the main offices of FAPESP August 29 – 31, 2012.