The United Nations and Sciences

The institutional development of the United Nations has been marked by its different responses to an increasingly complex set of challenges. The Global Agenda and the related responsibilities of the United Nations increasingly deal with issues whose terminology has not been included in the Charter of the United Nations. The need for qualified knowledge inputs into the policy-making processes of the international community has, however, been present from its creation. The Charter mandates the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to initiate studies for the promotion of international cooperation in the political, economic, social, cultural, educational and health fields as well as for assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms (Art. 13.1.a-b; Art, 62,1).

The United Nations Secretariat was first to involve academia in issue articulation programmes, conferences and the drafting of reports dealing with either new global programme areas or with specific policy issues reflecting the changing membership of the United Nations. Examples are the evolving United Nations agenda on natural resources and energy as well as regarding social development or concerning the peaceful uses of outer space.  Academia, however, had no identified standing in these UN processes. While the United Nations Charter empowered ECOSOC to make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations (Art. 71) there has been no reference to scientific institutions or regarding the use of their work in global policy discourse. With the exception of some subsidiary organs dealing with human rights or the peaceful uses of outer spaces the General Assembly grants no access to academia.

United Nations Secretary-General U Thant recognized in the early 1960ies the fundamental importance of academia for the policy processes and for the institutional development of the United Nations. Some of the first United Nations research and training institutes were established by the General Assembly and by ECOSOC under his leadership. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) was created in 1965 by the General Assembly (Res. 2044 (XX) of 8 December 1965) and received as one of its first research tasks the request for an analysis of United Nations membership options for “micro-states” triggered by the applications of newly independent developing countries, especially the Caribbean states.     UNITAR provides today most valuable programmes of capacity building through academic course programmes including online courses on the United Nations and concrete development and peace programme focused workshops and seminars in numerous United Nations Member States.

U Thant’s recognition of the significance of academia for the United Nations led then to negotiations regarding the creation of a United Nations University (UNU) which he succeeded in agreeing on with the Government of Japan and which provided generous funding for the creation and ensuing operation of the core framework of the University in Tokyo. UNU’s institutional development was multiply creative and innovative. Over the past four decades a broad network of pluri-disciplinary research and training institutions in all regions of world has been created dealing i.a. with comparative regional integration studies, with environment and human security, with the natural resources in Africa, with sustainability and peace, with economic and social research and training and with water, environment and health.

UNU has also promoted a series of Programmes dealing with biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean, with food and nutrition, fisheries, geothermal training and land restoration training. UNU’s relations with the United Nations have been defined by the different leaderships of UNU’s rectors. Over the past twenty years important innovation took place in UNU’s system based on the global policy-making processes’ needs for academic inputs.

The University for Peace was also initiated by a Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (A/RES/35/55) and, headquartered in San Jose, Costa Rica, focused its training programme on international peace and security. Secretary-General Kofi Annan triggered a programme of enhanced integration of the University for Peace into the United Nations system with education, training and research on such key issues as conflict-prevention, human security, human rights, environmental security and post-conflict rehabilitation.

With the change of global governance objectives from national interests to the global common good the institutions of knowledge production assumed an ever more significant role in the definition of our global objectives and regarding their implementation. Special agenda issues were supported by the creation of specialized research institutions, academic expert panels and their reports. Diplomacy was profoundly challenged by the increasing complexity of our agenda.    

Several United Nations priority agenda areas were not only strengthened by deliberative and/or executive organs/bodies in the United Nations system but by new global research capacities created by the General Assembly or ECOSOC. The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) was established already in 1963 to conduct policy-relevant research on pressing issues of social development then being transformed into the United Nations Social Defence Research Institute (UNSDRI) and in 1989 into the Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) with the objective to support inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations in the formulation and implementation of policies on crime prevention and criminal justice. The Institute’s current priorities reflect the new trans-sectoral quality of our security agenda dealing with nuclear risks mitigation, cyber-crimes and counter-terrorism.

The emerging issues related to women’s rights and the conclusions of the World Conference on Women in 1975 led to the establishment by ECOSOC of the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) which was headquartered in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with a special focus on the role of women in development processes. In 2010 INSTRAW became part of the newly created United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).

The history of the role of academia in global affairs has been marked by the evolution of new complex agenda areas for which the international community needed objective, common good-focused academic analyses and assessments. A special case in this context has been the preparatory process and the organisation of the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment in 1972 and the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Major elements of the Stockholm Principles were developed in informal preparatory events of the scientific community and its institutions.

The access of academia to the environmental protection agenda and then to the agenda on sustainable development was facilitated by Mr. Morris Strong as Secretary of the two conferences. In Stockholm he had civil society and academia meet in an event separate from the intergovernmental conference yet physically nearby thus facilitating constant informal consultations between the intergovernmental delegations and the participants in the civil society and academia side event. The issues and the terminology of the new environmental agenda were sometimes difficult to work with for the diplomatic delegations. The concept of “sustainability”, now a core principle of our post-2015 agenda, had been adopted at a science community meeting in Lyon, France, in April 1972 but did not make it into the Stockholm Principles of the concluding document of the intergovernmental conference. It was then the task of the Gro Harlem Brundtland Commission to bring the concept of “sustainability” into the intergovernmental discourse to be dealt with and then adopted by the Rio Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992.

In preparing UNCED Morris Strong initiated the first, and so far only academic preparatory conference to a United Nations substantive summit meeting. In cooperation with the International Council of Science (ICSU), and with the Austrian Foreign Ministry he organized in Vienna a conference of the scientific community to deal with the “Agenda of Science for Environment and Development into the 21st Century” (ASCEND 21). Agenda 21 of UNCED confirmed then the status of the scientific community as one of the nine “major groups” which were to be consulted regarding sustainable development issues.

The global sustainability agenda triggered several cases of institutional innovation and development regarding the relation between sciences and global policy processes. The issues of climate change were not to be addressed successfully by the international community without the input from the scientific community. The process of intergovernmental negotiations was marked from the very beginning by the contribution from academia. The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has been marked by an increasing recognition of the fundamental inputs from sciences. The five assessment reports of the IPCC are benefiting from contributions from thousands of scientists of all regions and have become the undisputed basis for intergovernmental negotiations on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The now internationally accepted authority of the IPCC has also been recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize 2007.

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) founded in 2010 after years of negotiations followed a similar path. The task of the Platform providing interaction and cooperation among more than 40 science organisations, United Nations specialized agencies and programmes, international conventions etc. is to provide governmental, United Nations institutions and all other relevant institutions with decision-making responsibilities with the needed scientific information, with assessments of the interrelationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functions and to indicate capacities and activities, which can contribute to a better networking between sciences and global policy-making.  

The relationship between academia and the global policies are, however also defined by the programmes and institutions of higher education and research. The United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), created by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2010 aims at placing the academic community into a setting of global intellectual social responsibility based on the commitment to certain bedrock principles. In analogy to the ten principles of the UN Global Compact for its private sector members the Academic Impact commits its members to ten basic principles on the special role of academia in globality, including freedom of inquiry, opinion, and speech, advancing peace and conflict resolution through education, addressing issues of poverty through education and in promoting the capacities for inter-cultural dialogue and understanding. Ten UNAI member institutions of all regions have been designated to serve as hubs for each of the ten principles.

The United Nations Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) has been the latest and highly relevant institutional creation by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in 2013 to address the relationship and needed interaction between academia and the global policy-making institutions. The Board composed of 26 renowned scientists from a broad variety of scientific disciplines, agenda sectors and world regions is to provide advice to the United Nations Secretary-General and to the executive directors of UN organisations and programmes in general matters of science, technology and innovation with a special focus on sustainable development. The Board is to identify knowledge gaps, recommend priorities in research work and assessment needs offering insight on democratic global governance with s focus on sustainability and the responsible and ethical development of science. The Director-General of UNESCO serves as chairperson of the Board and the UNESCO secretariat in Paris provides the secretariat services. To what extent the Board could also enter into certain interactions with the key policy-making organs of the international community, including especially the UN-General Assembly, is yet open to institutional development.

The agenda and institutional history of the United Nations reveals its clear dependence on inputs from the knowledge-production sector which in turn has to adjust and develop its research and education programmes to our new globality and related challenges. Our common future will be defined and achieved by the partnership between sciences, governance leadership and diplomacy.