Closing remarks by Irina Bokova, ISC Patron, at the Mid-term Meeting of Members

Irina Bokova reviews the critical issues raised at by ISC Members during the recent Paris jamboree.

Paris, 12 May 2023

The ISC defines science as the systematic organization of knowledge that can be rationally explained and reliably applied. It is inclusive of the natural (including physical, mathematical and life) science and social (including behavioural and economic) science domains, which represent the ISC’s primary focus, as well as the humanities, medical, health, computer and engineering sciences. The ISC recognizes that there is no single word or phrase in English (though there are in other languages) that adequately describes this knowledge community.

The knowledge generated through science can and has provided answers to human needs, spanning from existential quests on humans and nature to combating diseases, improving livelihood systems and achieving stable social organization.

The science enterprise acts as a glue in society because it puts in touch and makes cooperate the knowledge producers with those who apply the findings of science, from policymakers to the private sector.

I know that many critical issues were raised during this conference:

  • On profile: The biggest issue remains the need to strengthen the profile of the ISC: it is not well known by the members of our members, the wider scientific community and by our key stakeholders, but how to make the organization have more visible and in a more systematic way?
  • On relationship building: The meeting has learned that a key focus for the ISC has been relationship building (including with the multilateral system), trust building and building an audience for the global voice for science to be heard which require dedicated sustained efforts from the President and CEO. 
  • On Multilateral issues: The ISC is uniquely placed to provide the interface between the scientific community and the multilateral system. Major steps have been taken in developing and maintaining active partnerships with a number of UN organizations, instigating the establishment of a Group of Friends on Science for Action co-chaired by Belgium, India and South Africa for which the ISC will provide the secretariat together with UNESCO, and establishing a presence in New York.   Members want to see an increase in capacity in New York and Geneva, and are invited to continue to actively contribute to the ISC science-policy work by responding to the calls for nominations to identify experts on different topics which will assist in UN agency calls for science expertise and advice.
  • There is a true responsibility for the ISC when it comes to the critical contribution of science to the implementation of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development that is desperately lagging behind against the background of overlapping global crises. The UN Secretary General’s initiative to convene an SDG Summit in September in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly is a strong call to action and the ISC cannot stand aside.
  • On Ethics: Ethics, freedom and responsibility is a long-standing focus and remains essential, and addressing the mistrust in science is an increasing priority from a number of key stakeholders. We notice that science is changing is in understanding how it relates to communities and particularly to other knowledge systems such as religion and indigenous knowledge.  However, Members have noted that Science not always used for the common good, and the ISC needs to acknowledge this and have a role in addressing these issues of how STI is developed and applied (e.g. many rapid technological developments in the life sciences and their implications for human dignity).   
  • On diversity: Ensuring the diversity of people and cultures and that they are fully represented in the global scientific effort. A question for all ISC is members is how can other countries and academies and the ISC help build stronger science systems, especially through our new partnership with Future Africa and our regional focal points in Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s welcomed that ISC members were quick to reaction to support Ukraine – there methods and resources to support scientists in times of crises – how can we work together in solidarity where science systems underfunded so that at a local level, science can be self-determined with a strong international voice.
  • On AI: AI brings exponential changes that are difficult to predict, emphasizing the need to understand digital trends and potential risk. Delegates heard from a number of organisations and their case studies on digitisation. For example, the World Anthropological Union implemented a new digitalized membership model, expanding its reach and embracing diversity and internationalization while also maintaining traditional communication services. They argued that digitalization enables inclusion and can serve as a tool for decolonization of science.
  • On women’s participation in science: Delegates noted that critical issues remain and have done for many years, with very slow progress. Delegates are committed supporting the baseline survey that the ISC has produced with partners such as the IAP. This will require a commitment to data gathering. Mentoring women and partnering with ISC affiliate member The Organisation of Women Scientists in the Developing World – OWSD – with their many national chapters was seen as an important driver of continuing the baseline survey, along with the Standing Committee for Gender Equality in Science. Delegates are encouraged to have their organisations join this committee to assist in data collection and transformational change.
  • On Digital technologies: The meeting highlighted the need for ISC member organizations to develop digital skills, strategies, and effectively utilize AI. Understanding digital trends, embracing data-driven services, and promoting collaboration and agility were emphasized. Case studies demonstrated successful digitalization efforts, while future considerations focused on the implications and ethical aspects of AI, enhancing digital experiences, and addressing biases within the field. 
  • On early career scientists Members are keen for the ISC to have a convening role on brokering mentorships to engage science leaders of the future.
  • On education: Sometimes the system seems insurmountable. Delegates discussed many facets of scientific education, from early years to tertiary and beyond. With the Governing Board-led project, there are many workstreams to consider, including open science and the future of publishing.
  • On constitutional revision (internal) Delegates have had a unique opportunity to talk about the raison d’être of the ISC in an open and robust dialogue. It sets the scene for the constitutional revision committee to hear the views of Members and develop an ISC that is agile, responds to the challenges of the 21st century and ensures it covers the full complement of scientific disciplines and geographical representation.

The International Science Council tries to organize all these efforts so that science can be impactful. It is a unique organization and a truly global platform plat-form where science is co-designed and made possible. Naturally, without the efforts of its national and international members, science would not exist; equally, without the ISC its voice could not be so authoritative and load:

  • because the ISC speaks for all disciplines and links them into integrated knowledge;
  • because the Council bridges science in the north with science in the south;
  • because it amplifies the contribution of science to diplomacy and peace.

The road before the ISC is not without bumps: trust on scientific knowledge has diminished in favor of sometimes unsubstantiated opinions; there is a general sense of confusion about the direction leading to sustainability and security. Humanity is searching a new equilibrium.

In this context, science can act as an equalizer to achieve social justice and peaceful dialogues among countries at such difficult times in history, but also as a leverage for a new humanism, based on science and knowledge. I believe, this is exactly the “moral ground”, that Peter Gluckman emphasized so strongly and convincingly during our meeting.

Thank you.

Irina Bokova is a former Director-General of UNESCO and is ISC Patron and Co-chair of the International Science Council’s Global Commission on Mission Science for Sustainability.

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