The Bush Administration's decision to rejoin the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) offers the US science and engineering community a chance to expand its opportunities for international cooperation and technical assistance, which would support peace, world dialogue, and progress towards sustainable development. The president's decision, supported by the secretary of state, is very welcome indeed, and Congress should be encouraged to provide the necessary funds.
Unfortunately, the United States' 18-year absence from UNESCO leaves it relatively unfamiliar with the purposes and programs of this specialized agency, which was established after WW II to provide a peace-building, cooperative network that would lead, it was hoped, to the solidarity of humankind through intercultural dialogue and technical exchanges.
UNESCO is an intergovernmental organization, headquartered in Paris, with strong ties to nongovernmental organizations, including the International Council for Science (ICSU). UNESCO has a long tradition of concern for the life sciences as well as for the environment; its programs aim at promoting international scientific cooperation in these fields and bridging the scientific and technological differences existing between developed and developing countries.
The objectives of the UNESCO life sciences programs are achieved through specialized networks that organize training activities, workshops, and research projects on a collaborative basis. These include activities in molecular and cell biology, in cooperation with the UNESCO Biotechnology Action Council; short-term fellowships; Professorship Scheme; UNESCO Chairs; and Biotechnology Education and Training Centers.
Another example of long-term successful cooperation between the agency and a life-science, nongovernmental organization is that of the UNESCO Microbial Resources Centers (MIRCENS) Network. The academic and research institutes that comprise this group interact with governmental bodies, forming a network that conducts microbiological research and designs biotechnological applications that help humankind. It awards the UNESCO-ASM (American Society for Microbiology) Travel Awards to provide promising young investigators the chance to travel so they can gain expertise in a method, procedure, or a specific topic.
A good cooperation model is provided by the International Cell Research Organization, which was founded in 1962 as a nongovernmental organization specifically designed to help UNESCO implement its cell biology program. ICRO, with its corps of scientists, can assess the prevailing scientific trends and promise of cell research as well as the best methods for their dissemination. In turn, UNESCO works out planning mechanisms based on its awareness of the needs of member states. As reported by ICRO, this collaboration is designed to ensure the program's success and high standards. Above all, UNESCO's primary stable funding, sometimes only of catalytic size, provides maximum returns because of ICRO's operational flexibility as a nongovernmental organization.
The participation of developing countries in the ICRO training courses provides complementary advantages. The attendance of some of their young scientists in high-level "sophisticated" training courses, working with colleagues of developed countries, helps assimilate them into the scientific community. At the same time, holding a course in their own country tends to boost local scientific activity and reinforce the prestige, and, it is hoped, boost the funding of the host institution.
UNESCO programs also are directed at the issues between science and society. Programs such as Man and the Biosphere and Diversitas, carried out with ICSU, have made substantial pioneering contributions in environmental and biodiversity issues. UNESCO contributed significantly to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002, and is expected to take the lead role in the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.
UNESCO's bioethics program highlights the organization's interdisciplinary capabilities; the ethics of science and technology is now one of UNESCO's top-five priorities. The International Bioethics Committee (IBC) has produced the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, which was adopted in 1997 by UNESCO's General Conference; the UN's General Assembly endorsed it in 1998.
Among the many reports produced during the IBC's 10 years of activity, "The Use of Embryonic Stem Cells in Therapeutic Research" in 2001 clearly illustrates the Committee's approach. As consensus proved impossible in this highly controversial area, the IBC did not take sides but provided the necessary clarifications--by outlining the different ethical arguments and listing ethically acceptable forms of research according to various points of view--to national authorities seeking to legislate in this domain.
To stay in touch with UNESCO programs, US scientists are encouraged to make use of the organization's Web site: www.unesco.org.
Sidney Passman is a Director of Americans for UNESCO and is the former director of the UNESCO Division of Scientific Research and Higher Education.