Comrades-in-science

April 26, 1996

Lack of international research cooperation is hampering the fight against global threats, such as those to the environment and nutrition, Unesco warns in its second World Science Report published this week.

It says a special initiative may be needed from those agencies already involved in international science - Unesco, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union.

Alternatively, the OECD's role as a clearing house for megascience could become a possible basis for coordinating funding on big world problems such as global nutrition and environmental issues, it says.

Unesco already runs several global research programmes and the EU is a major funder of international science.

World Science Report 1996 carries a region-by-region perspective on the state of science and a special section on discrimination against women in science.

"The overwhelming impression is one of change," Unesco director general Federico Mayor says in a preface to the report. "The richest countries are needing to radically rethink their scientific and technological priorities and strategies . . . and the developing countries are confronting the problems of providing the necessary critical mass in teaching and research . . ."

In its introductory overview, the 1996 report points out that Europe is still losing ground steadily in technological innovation to Japan.

EU countries show a 24 per cent decline in United States patents and a 9 per cent loss of world patents for the six years up to 1993, while Japan's global share rose by 29 per cent in the same period.

In a chapter on the Commonwealth of Independent States. Leonid Gokhberg says the CIS countries are experiencing a "drastic downsizing of their research and development base" on a scale that is "unprecedented in the history of science in the 20th century".

Between 1991 and 1993, research and development expenditure in the CIS fell by 40-60 per cent in different CIS countries. From 1992/93, the number of researchers in Armenia was halved and fell from 804,000 to 644,000 in Russia.

National science academies have played a key role in maintaining numbers in basic research, writes Dr Gokhberg, deputy director of the Moscow-based Centre for Science Research and Statistics, but often because staff work in business elsewhere, are part-time or on unpaid leave.

"This has a negative influence on the volume and quality of the actual research work carried out in the academies," he concludes.

Some reforms are emerging from high-level science policy bodies that Russia and some other CIS countries have set up. But Dr Gokhberg argues that the academies often block them, fearing they will affect funding and influence.

On international cooperation in science, the Unesco report suggests that the post-Cold War era should be more conducive to collaboration in megascience projects.

Problems such as achieving sustainable world nutrition for a global population of over 10 billion people require megascience to avoid "catastrophe", warns the report. One obstacle likely to "hamper further internationalisation is the complexity of the US budgetary process which makes it difficult to guarantee a commitment in long-term funding for joint efforts".

The global threats needing megascience as a response "might justify a special initiative" on the part of agencies involved in international science - Unesco, the European Union and the OECD.

The section on women and science takes a look at the membership of some scientific advisory boards. The EU Committee for the European Development of Science and Technology has one woman and 29 men. France's board has two women and 38 men, Britain's Council for Science and Technology one woman and 11 men. The only board with a slightly better record is the US's President's Committee of Advisors, with six women and 12 men. Such low participation remains an "invisible problem", write Sandra Harding and Elizabeth McGregor.

World Science Report 1996, Unesco Publishing, Paris; $45 (ISBN 92-3-1-3220-8)

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