‘Science multilateralism’ in action: building recognition of the ISC within the UN system

In April 2019, the ISC appointed Flavia Schlegel as its first Special Envoy for Science in Global Policy, in order to build the ISC’s identity and presence within the UN and other global policy fora. We spoke to Flavia to find out more about how the ISC made a difference during a busy year for science in global policy.

Flavia Schlegel

Special Envoy for Science in Global Policy


When you joined the ISC in April 2019, what was the starting place – what was your perception of how the ISC was working to strengthen science in global policy?

I came to the ISC with a great appreciation for what had been achieved through the merger of ICSU and ISSC. The merger demonstrated that ISC members were ready for the challenge and the ambition of the 2030 Agenda, which is my guiding compass for science and public policy. Success on the 2030 Agenda will not lie in one discipline or in one approach, but in bringing the natural and social sciences closer together. What we needed was a ‘multilateral science’ organization, bringing the full power, creativity and knowledge of the science community in all its diversity to the table.

As the Special Envoy, I had the opportunity to introduce and to explain the new ISC to UN bodies and agencies. Thanks to the ISC’s investment in communication and outreach, the ISC’s added value in bridging disciplinary gaps has been widely recognized and appreciated. By the end of 2019, the global voice for science had created a new, unique identity that made it visible and recognizable in the very complex landscape of global science and governance networks in and around the UN.

What were your key moments from 2019?

One of my priorities is to open doors for ISC, and while I focus on the UN, other multilateral entities are important players as well.  A key moment was the meeting with the leadership team of the science track (S20) of the G20. We met with the Chair of the S20 for the first time in person during the World Science Forum in Budapest. This meeting was about building trust and a long-lasting relationship. Now, in view of the G20 meeting 2020 in Saudi Arabia, we have the opportunity to follow the process, and participate in their meetings. Over the longer term, we are now looking into formalizing our cooperation with S20.

Another highlight was the positive feedback from the UN Secretary General’s office to our initiative ‘inside-out’. I had made the case at the ISC that good relations with the UN in New York are essential, but that cooperation with technical UN agencies (such as WHO, UNESCO and others) was as important for real impact on the ground. The ISC already had long-standing cooperation with many of them. My idea was to reach out to the senior science leaders at these organizations and to establish an informal exchange on how to foster cooperation among science communities inside and outside (therefore the title ‘insideout’) the UN system, and how to harness synergies and cooperate with the UN country teams. A first meeting took place in Geneva in November 2019 with a commitment to concrete action.

The publication of the Global Sustainable Development Report in 2019 was a major milestone for the SDGs, and it was important for the ISC. While the Report confirms the directions given by the Agenda 2030, it is also a serious wake-up call that progress made is far from sufficient. But it’s not all bad news: The report concludes that a sustainable future is still possible if we drastically change policies, funding and actions. It goes further, by offering a set of entry points and levers for governments and stakeholders, and includes a list of concrete recommendations for action. Science remains at the centre of sustainable development as one of the four main levers.

The report recognizes the ISC and its partners, and the authors  suggest a clear role for the ISC in convening diverse scientific communities in order to develop knowledge production around six global systemic entry points for research. While representing the ISC at a number of the GSDR roll-out events, I felt that the ISC is a reliable, credible and representative partner for the UN. Its reach into the regions and countries is another key asset which could be further leveraged. I am in contact with UNDESA to discuss how the ISC can support future editions of the GSDR (the next edition will be published in 2023) and the Independent Group of Scientists that author it.

In a broader sense, my highlights include cooperation with the team in Paris and exchanges with the ISC members – I always appreciate their insights and views and the great commitment and engagement shown by members is impressive.

Where does the ISC still need to make progress in order to become a stronger advocate for science in informing policy?

The ISC’s members have huge potential, and bringing all these diverse voices together is ‘science multilateralism’. I’ve seen huge progress made over 2019, especially thanks to the communication team’s work to re-connect with the members and to fully harness the wealth and the power of the ISC’s membership. There’s still room to deepen engagement, but the very diverse membership of the ISC means it has a lot to offer.

Another challenge is focus. There are an immense number of issues and fora where the ISC could contribute. The ISC really is a treasure chest full of different initiatives, programmes and knowledge! Working in partnership will be important to promote and amplify these initiatives.

Personally, I think that ISC could strengthen its voice for responsible advocacy for science. There is so much pressure on the freedom of science and scientists in so many countries, even in democracies, that the reminder of and advocacy for minimal norms and standards (such as the UNESCO recommendations for the freedom of science and scientists) is both a global and unfortunately urgent task. This requires steady and continuous action, sometimes behind the scenes. Science multilateralism needs strong and credible voices who dare to speak out.

Looking beyond outreach and engagement, the whole question of funding is crucial. When ISC organized the first Global Forum of Funders, it took the lead in highlighting the fact that if we need to transform science production for the 2030 Agenda, we also need to transform the funding environment for science. The commitment of the Forum’s participants to potentially re-direct a substantial part of funding towards mission- (or outcome-) oriented research was a very promising result. I hope this initiative will continue to bear fruit in 2020.


Photo: Flavia Schlegel speaking on championing science engagement and inclusivity at the World Conference of Science Journalists, which took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in July 2019. Photo: Johnson & Johnson.

Next up: 4. Protecting scientific freedom and advocating for responsible practice ▶

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