Scientists Stand Up For UNESCO At Congressional Hearing

WASHINGTON—Scientists are serving as the footsoldiers in the latest campaign to bring the United States back into UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. But theirs is an uphill battle, and their advocacy is forcing them into apparent alliances with some unfamiliar— and, to many people, unsavory—causes. Last month the scientific community argued its case before Congress, as the House foreign affairs subcommittee on international op

Oct 16, 1989
Jeffrey Mervis

WASHINGTON—Scientists are serving as the footsoldiers in the latest campaign to bring the United States back into UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. But theirs is an uphill battle, and their advocacy is forcing them into apparent alliances with some unfamiliar— and, to many people, unsavory—causes.

Last month the scientific community argued its case before Congress, as the House foreign affairs subcommittee on international operations heard testimony on whether the U.S. should rejoin the U.N. organization, which it abandoned in .1984. The U.S. dropped out, along with Great Britain and Singapore, because of its unhappiness with what it considered the radical politics and questionable administrative practices of its director general at the time, AmadouMahtar M’Bow of Senegal. M’Bow was replaced in 1987 by Federico Mayor Zaragoza, a Spanish biochemist who has pledged to carry out major reforms that will bring UNESCO’s former members back into the fold.

Working From Within

A host of professional organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, and the American Association of University Professors, have urged the U.S. to rejoin UNESCO and contribute its proportional share, now about $60 million, to its annual operations. That view was reflected in last month’s testimony from three scientists: Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences; Thomas Lovejoy, assistant secretary for external affairs at the Smithsonian Institution; and D. James Baker, president of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions.

The trio argued that UNESCO can play a major role in solving many of the problems facing our planet, and that the absence of the U.S. has hampered scientific progress on such issues as global climate change and species preservation. In addition, the scientists testified, the U.S. could exert much more influence by being on the inside than it would by remaining on the sidelines. All sides involved in the debate over membership agree that the agency’s scientific activities have never been a major issue. UNESCO now spends about a quarter of its overall budget of $375 million on research, training, conferences, and other scientific activities. The U.S., which spent $14 million on scientific programs while a member of UNESCO, now contributes some $2 million annually to selected programs with ties to the agency.

“UNESCO has been very successful in its scientific programs,” Press told Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chairman. “If it didn’t exist, we would need to invent it to deal .with the global problems facing us.” Referring to the optimal strategy for achieving change, Press added, “We weren’t too happy with the United Nations as a whole, but we didn’t get out. We worked from within. Mayor is moving as fast as he can, and he needs our support.”

Lovejoy cited a current UNESCO-backed program to improve worldwide- environmental planning—known as “Man and the Biosphere” (MAB)—as an example of how the U.S. decision to withdraw from UNESCO has hamstrung international collaboration. “As chairman of the U.S. MAB program,” he said, “I know what it’s like to sit there as an observer. It forces us to work behind the scenes to accomplish anything. And let me tell you, if you can’t vote, tben you don’t have much clout.”

But so far the scientists have found few political allies. Members of Congress who attended the hearing recited a litany of problems that they would like to see connected before supporting any return to the fold. One major complaint is that Mayor is not fighting harder against pressure from Third World countries to create an organization known as the New World Information and Communication Order, which could censor unfavorable press coverage of events in the developing world. Other complaints are that Mayor is incapable of heading off an upcoming request from the Palestine Liberation Organization for membership, and that he has so far failed to trim a bloated bureaucracy and tighten the spending practices of the agency. The Bush administration says that it wants to see improvements in UNESCO before it would consider any return, and a State Department official testified that Mayor’s most recent plans for reorganization “are, frankly, a disappointmentto us.”

The scientists at the hearing emphasized that they do not believe that Mayorhas solved all these problems. But they feel he is working hard to overcome an intransigent bureaucracy and a contentious membership. And they see the agency as the best bet for achieving top-quality international science.

“Nobody’s denying that UNESCO has lots of problems,” testified Baker, whose organization is a consortium of universities that operates the country’s ocean drilling program and is a participant in a UNESCO-sponsored international commission on the oceans. “If we were .starting from scratch, maybe we would choose to work independently of UNESCO. But we need to set up a global network of ocean observing stations to monitor changes around the world, for example, and the involvement of such [U.N.-sponsored] organizations is essential to achieve that goal.”

One important test of Mayor’s ability to make the necessary changes in UNESCO begins this week, when the agency’s General Conference gathers in Paris for the opening of a six-week session. Its agenda includes action on Mayor’s five-year financial and administrative plan for the agency, including shrinking from 14 to 7 the number of administrative units that deal with science.