President of the International Science Council, Sir Peter Gluckman, addresses EU Ministers

Brussels, Belgium | 15 February 2024

President of the International Science Council, Sir Peter Gluckman, addresses EU Ministers

Sir Peter Gluckman, President of the International Science Council, addressed European Union Ministers attending the Gala Dinner for the “Multilateral dialogue on principles and values for international cooperation in research and innovation”. The dialogue, held in Brussels, Belgium on 15 and 16 February promotes the EU’s Global Approach to Research and Innovation launched in 2021. The speech addressed issues such as the challenges for science production and trust in science, decolonizing science, and evolving science for the 21st century.

Sir Peter addressed the following key points:

Read the speech in full

Thank you for honour of speaking tonight as president of the International Science Council, the primary NGO representing the global scientific community, across all domains, both basic and applied and inclusive of all natural and social sciences. Comprised of national academies, international disciplinary bodies, and other scientific organizations, it is active in virtually every country independent of geopolitics and t is headquartered in Paris, with regional focal points in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America.

Its strategic priorities link well with tomorrow’s discussion: how to improve the use of science in decision making at both national and multilateral levels, how to promote scientific freedom and responsible international scientific cooperation in a way that brings benefit to all parties: many of the ISC’s family of affiliate organizations have this as their central role. Thirdly we focus on thinking through the issues related to both the evolution of science and of science systems. 

18 months ago, in opening this project I spoke of the critical importance of distinguishing between science and science systems; something that is even more important as debates over decolonization and political attempts at undermining trust in science grow. If we want to promote international science cooperation this distinction must be understood and respected. Science is arguably the only universal language and is defined by a set of principles. Given that modern science is a global activity critical to virtually every challenge we must confront, it is important that we have broadly and globally accepted understandings of how to cooperate and deliver needed science.

Science is defined by characteristics that make it a distinctive form of knowledge: one that is systematically organised and is rationally explicable, tested against reality, and the scrutiny of peers. Knowledge claims are tested against logic and reality. As a result, science is self-correcting and evolves. 

Why does this matter? Science, even with its distinctive characteristics, does not exist in isolation from other knowledge systems be they originating from religion, local or indigenous knowledge, or the tacit knowledge of different occupations including politics. But to be useful it must live respectively and hopefully in dialogue with them.  Ensuring science can contribute to the public good depends on its integrity and on whether it provides relevant answers to real – if perhaps wicked – problems. This also demands that science does not claim that it can answer everything or make decisions on behalf of society. It is society, not science that should determine the use of science and technology.

But the way science systems are organised within a society is influenced by culture, history, and context. There are enormous differences across the globe in how science is organised and used. It is thus possible to talk about decolonising science systems without threatening the principles that define science. It is critical for effective multilateral science cooperation that we understand these variations in science systems despite the universality of science. Science cooperation may fail when global north scientists operating in distant contexts fail to recognise these differences. 

This project has largely focused on the production of trustworthy science, an area the ISC has long taken a lead on through its Committee on the Freedom and Responsibility of Science. But there is a deeper challenge: the changing perceptions of science as valued and trustworthy. It can be undermined by politicians, interest groups, disinformation or by poor or arrogant scientific communication.

Despite large investments in science, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals has been disappointing. The ISC has spent much time consulting and thinking about this reality. Most research that is supported and incentivised by funders, universities and academia is mode 1 in nature, that is, where largely disciplinarily siloed scientists are funded to produce knowledge in a linear manner: the primary outcomes are academic or technological.

But the wicked problems that we all face require a different approach. Whether it is climate change, technological developments such as AI, sociological or demographic change, mental health, or intergenerational disadvantage, there is a growing understanding that these are complex systems requiring complex interventions needing a different kind of research termed mode 2 research and, in particular, transdisciplinary approaches.  In such research stakeholders, be they policy makers, business, or civil society need to be fully involved from the outset with scientists of multiple disciplines, including both natural and social scientists, who can leave their disciplinary hubris at the door. This includes informing both the questions and research methodology making the production of actionable, trusted knowledge much more likely. But it takes time to build trust and time to do this. Current funding and assessment processes do not encourage such approaches.

The ISC is advocating that at every level of science from local to global, while protecting mode 1 disciplinary and interdisciplinary science, that new tools are employed to support mode 2 transdisciplinary science. There are excellent examples emerging, but these are largely funded outside mainstream mechanisms. Global funder cooperation is needed to develop these modalities. But the world cannot wait and the ISC will launch its own pilot funding scheme later this year to demonstrate what can be achieved. We welcome partners in doing so. 

While the actionable knowledge that emerges from such science is critical to address challenges at every scale from local to global, science’s unique position as a universal provides additional benefits of supporting multilateral diplomacy.  Here too the EU as a global player in setting research policy can show leadership.

The current science system must now evolve – while sustaining efforts in traditional modes, it must support new modes of doing science for real progress on many issues of the global commons. Combatting these even at a local level must involve greater international scientific cooperation. We cannot afford to fail.

Sir Peter Gluckman



International Science Council


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