We write the introduction to this report of the ISC’s activities in 2021 against the backdrop of war in Ukraine, with distressing loss of life and consequences of concern for the whole of the scientific community. At times like this, we are reminded of the fundamental value of science as a method of building knowledge and shared understanding, and of the importance of international scientific collaboration for jointly working to resolve challenges that are too big for one discipline or one nation to apprehend.
This report highlights some of the ISC’s key successes in working to uphold these values throughout 2021. A look across the ISC’s portfolio of projects and outputs from the year provides an insight into the complex, changing landscape for science and its relationship to society, and demonstrates how the ISC is responding to the acute need for science that is engaged with societal concerns.
The year 2021 began with Bouncing Forward Sustainably – Pathways to a post-COVID world, which was launched in January. This project, which was co-led by the ISC and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), grappled with one of the most crucial concerns for policy-makers throughout the year, and a key theme running through all our work: identifying sustainable, equitable pathways out of the COVID-19 pandemic. In February, an article published in The Lancet launched a new ISC project to examine a range of scenarios for COVID-19 outcomes over the mid- and long term that aim to assist our understanding of the options for achieving an optimistic and fair end to the pandemic.
While COVID-19 continues to affect our ability to convene in the traditional way, the ISC has made the most of remote connection tools and strengthened digital capacity in order to redouble its efforts across a range of projects and activities delivered in partnership. 2021 has been a year of transition for the ISC, and when Members gathered for the well-attended General Assembly in October 2021, a new Governing Board was appointed and a new Action Plan for 2022–2024 was finalized. This will set the direction of the Council’s activities over the coming term and, together with the Governing Board and supported by the Secretariat team, we are already working to implement the Plan.
We thank the Council’s first Governing Board, and especially inaugural President of the Council, Daya Reddy, for establishing such a clear vision and strong mandate for the ISC in the first three years following its launch in 2018. We also thank the inaugural Chief Executive Officer, Heide Hackmann, who worked tirelessly to lead the organization through the merger process and to establish an impactful portfolio of scientific projects. Their work was instrumental in putting the Council on a strong footing organizationally, with an inspiring vision of science as a global public good. This vision, which had first been set out in the Council’s High-Level Strategy published in 2018, has now been strengthened by a position paper on Science as a Global Public Good, published in October 2021. The paper examines the fundamental responsibilities of scientists, and the roles that science plays in society, and serves to inform all of the Council’s activities.
A new chapter for the International Science Council
With a clearly articulated vision, a strong organizational footing and a new Action Plan to guide the Council’s work to the end of 2024, we have a springboard from which to scale up the ISC’s activities and continue to raise its public profile.
A crucial aim for the coming years will be for the Council to become more effective in the multilateral system, informed by the recommendations in the Report on ISC strategy in the intergovernmental system, which was published in late 2021 and endorsed by ISC Members at the General Assembly.
This work will also depend on building a stronger public profile for the ISC, and raising awareness of what the Council does with scientists worldwide, including those who are already engaged with ISC Members and those who are not. Our partnership with BBC StoryWorks for Unlocking Science has allowed the ISC to reach an unprecedented online audience: we must work to build on this, and to reach new communities that are curious about science and what it can deliver.
This kind of public engagement with science will be crucial to addressing the most urgent challenge of our time: accelerating action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as advancing human development so that everyone, everywhere can thrive within planetary boundaries.
There is now broad recognition that responding to this challenge and achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda will demand game-changing collective action from all actors, including within science systems. The ISC took an important step towards this goal in 2021 with the publication of Unleashing Science: Delivering Missions for Sustainability, which makes a compelling case for going beyond business-as-usual approaches towards structuring, funding and carrying out scientific research. In order to meet these aims, the ISC has established the Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability, a panel of thought-leaders co-chaired by Irina Bokova, former Bulgarian Foreign Minister and Director General of UNESCO, and Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and previous administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. The Commission is tasked with identifying the most appropriate institutional arrangements and funding mechanisms required to mobilize support for a global fund of US$100 m per year for mission-oriented science as part of the Decade of Global Sustainability Science Action.
This is an ambitious aim, which calls for joined-up action and commitment from across the science system, and the full engagement of the ISC Members and wider network. We thank all members of our community for your support through 2021, and look forward to working closely with you in the year ahead.
President, International Science Council
Acting Chief Executive Officer, and Science Director, International Science Council