My Science Policy Battles and Why I Like the New UNESCO Statement

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


For much of my career, I felt qualified for the science policy arena, at least at the level of assistant gladiator. Now I am not so sure.

I find it hard to think of myself as having been properly equipped during those years due to my limited grasp of UNESCO's 1974 Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers.

The Recommendation enjoyed repute as a useful policy-making instrument.

But I battled when reading it.

Its first sentence gushes out 968 words in snappy phrases like

  • "Recalling that, by the terms of the final paragraph of the Preamble to its Constitution, UNESCO seeks by means of promoting (inter alia) the scientific relations of the peoples of the world to advance the objectives of ..." and
  • "Observing that, in all parts of the world, this aspect of policy-making is coming to assume increasing importance for the Member States; having in mind the intergovernmental initiatives set out in the Annex to this recommendation, demonstrating recognition by Member States of the growing value of science and technology for tackling various world problems on a broad international basis, thereby strengthening co-operation among nations as well as promoting the development of individual nations;" and
  • "confident that these trends predispose Member States to the taking of concrete action for the introduction and pursuit of adequate science and technology policies."

"Recalling that" passage and "observing that" I have a weak attention span, I understand why the document slipped to the subterranean levels of my reading-priority pile.

Our masters might suggest that reviewing, absorbing, and regurgitating turgid prose comes with the science-policy ground. But having unfettered alternatives aligned with my salary and comprehension levels, I never found time to grasp onto this assembly of words.

That changed a few years ago when the International Council for Science (ICSU) received an invitation to comment on the UNESCO Recommendation and support an effort to update it. The task of reviewing a draft revision fell to a committee on which I served, and with this coercion, I hauled my eyes across the pages for the first time.

In doing so, I not only appreciated the merits of a revision, but also saw the value in the consultation exercise and in the loquacious elements of the text surviving into this next round.

Why it matters to you and me

With UN-endorsement, the document has political standing, linkage to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and influence on national codes of conduct, policies, and guidelines for science ethics. I now recognized those seemingly perfunctory words as a standard bearer for constructive science-society relationships and consistency internationally.

This was true for the 1974 version. Now in its new form, approved by UN members last November and redubbed as the 2017 UNESCO "Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers", the document also speaks to contemporary issues around equal access, open science, and transparency.

Anyone who has been charged with crafting science policy, particularly in the realm of ethics, will know that the process of establishing basic principles can devour a lot of human energy. Centuries of policy drafting time could be liberated by just referencing accepted, convincing standards.

This alone advocates for familiarity with the new UNESCO Recommendation as its renewal offers access to words and thoughts that, if not more readable, at least more relevant and inspiring.

I personally like that the updated Recommendation:

  • Echoes UN Ideals of justice, peace, inclusivity, and respect for human rights and the environment;
  • Defines Meaningful Science-Society Interaction as a two-way effort to respond to human needs and increase recognition of the value of science in tackling global challenges;
  • Values Science Input to Policy but asks that it be based upon accountable processes aimed at advancing international cooperation and development;
  • Describes Science as a Global Public Good that should be directed toward the long term with a wide distribution of benefits through the sharing of data, methods, results, and other knowledge;
  • Advocates for Inclusivity through non-discriminatory access to education and employment opportunities that support the participation of women and underrepresented groups;
  • Stresses Human Dignity recognizing that standards of respect should extend to both scientific researchers and human research participants;
  • Balances Freedom and Responsibility by matching intellectual freedoms with responsibility for the conduct of research in a scientifically, socially, and ecologically responsible manner;
  • Promotes Integrity in both Science and It Applications as framed by robust codes of conduct, administrative infrastructures, education, and training in science ethics;
  • Recognizes the need for Skilled People as critical calling for policies that support the training, career development, mobility, health, and security of scientific researchers; and
  • Presses governments to provide an environment for Science to Flourish by enhancing human and institutional capacities, recognizing success, and establishing quality standards.

All useful notions for sure. But, again, as I think of those slaving away on the galleys of new science policies, I must confess that the supporting references are not always easy to find and that the Recommendation still bulges with words. The preamble remains unbroken, and the document, by necessity, carries the marks of wordsmiths from almost two hundred nation-states.

Fortunately for science policy practitioners, the Canadian Commission on UNESCO (CCUNESO) and its counterpart in the Netherlands are collaborating on tools to present the 2017 Recommendation for easier reference, and even UNESCO HQ has also shown a sensitivity in its brochure-style formatting of the new document.

Twenty-first century-style, these groups are also taking the communications effort into the social media forum with the ambition of building a community of practice, advancing knowledge, and amplifying the impact of the Recommendation to benefit science and society.

Their efforts have led me to realize that the problem with the 1974 version of the UNESCO Recommendation did not rest in its pages, but with people like me at the assistant gladiator level, who did not make the effort to absorb and share it.

I might have done so if I had recognized it, as I do now, not as a wordy adversary to battle, but as a shield against unrewarded effort in the science policy arena.

New UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers

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