Calls for commitments to science close conference

July 9, 1999

The World Conference on Science wrapped up with a range of proposals for national governments to consider, but it ducked the question of funding. Kester Eddy reports from Budapest

The speeches closing last week's six-day World Science Conference in Budapest tended to agree with conference vice-chairman Owonu Nguema of Gabon, who said:

"This conference was of an entirely new kind - involving ministers, scientists, academics, non-governmental organisations, economic and social players. It was a model for the way consensus was reached, demonstrating a new determination (to solve problems)."

Unesco director-general Federico Mayor was also pleased with the outcome: "For the first time ever, the key resource of humanity is not finite. We will never have to wage war over diminishing supplies of knowledge."

The final documents of the conference, organised by Unesco and the International Council for Science, were a 33-point draft "Declaration on science and the use of scientific knowledge" and a 14-page "Draft science agenda: framework for action". They contain recommendations on issues ranging from ethics and freedom of knowledge in the scientific world to increasing the number of women and minorities involved in research.

Almost all of the proposals have far-reaching implications, even if governments take action in only a few of the highlighted areas.

Unesco said that by adopting the declaration, national delegations have given a political commitment to three principles that should underpin science policy: science for knowledge and progress, science for peace, and science for development.

The documents contain many high-minded statements but, as Mr Mayor, said: "You have to start somewhere." Unesco does not seek to impose its will, but to recommend policies to governments, he said.

Among the hot topics were ethical concerns. Sir Josef Rotblat called for a pledge, similar to the Hippocratic oath in medicine, to be taken by scientists when receiving a degree. Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that the wording the pledge would be tricky, and it does not appear in the final document.

Women's groups conducted one of the most successful lobbying campaigns. They managed to have a whole range of points inserted into the framework document aiming to improve female participation in science. If the mechanisms to ensure this do not exist, governments should create them, the document states.

Despite its good intentions, the conference attracted criticism. Greenpeace deplored "the lack of vision and concrete proposals in the Budapest declaration". It said: "Frankly, we fail to see a compelling vision and a really new commitment for the next century."

Then there was the question of funding. Though Mr Mayor suggested a minimum target contribution of 0.3 to 0.4 per cent of gross domestic product from even the poorest country, this was left out of the framework for action.

British development minister George Foulkes used the conference to plug an initiative for better science communication, which includes the planned centre for science communication in London. "We need to raise the level of debate, both nationally and internationally, so decisions are made in the full knowledge of how different countries and interest groups are affected by innovations," he said.

He added that the government was dedicated to promoting sustainable development underpinned by economic growth and environmental protection. To help achieve this, it had upped investment in technology and science by 10 per cent to over Pounds 20 billion in the next three years.

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