Brussels, 07 Nov 2005
Recognising that scientific research has 'not lived up to its full potential in addressing some of society's most pressing concerns', the International Council for Science (ICSU) has announced a strategic plan to strengthen science for the benefit of society.
The plan focuses on supporting interdisciplinary science in key areas of uncertainty, such as sustainable development, the impact for human behaviour on planetary processes, and mitigating the impacts of natural disasters such as the recent earthquake in Southern Asia, the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
'Scientists need to do a better job of communicating what they know to world leaders, but they also need to find out what information those policy makers would find useful,' says ICSU President Jane Lubchenco.
'The tsunami and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have demonstrated the devastating consequences to people and property of the removal of natural storm surge barriers such as wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs,' she continued. 'When coastal development ignores scientific information about the critical protecting functions of these ecosystems, people are at greater risk.'
The new strategy is based on expert reports and consultations carried out by scientists and scientific institutions across the world, and builds on the ICSU's current programmes to coordinate environmental research, protect scientific freedom and improve access to data and information.
Elaborating on the disaster mitigation initiative, Gordon McBean, head of the ICSU scoping group on this issue, said: 'We can't actually stop hurricanes or tsunamis or other extremes of nature. But if we bring together the right mix of research - work that integrates such disciplines as engineering, climate, health and social sciences - and find a better way to plug these insights into the policy making process, we can avoid a lot of unnecessary human and economic losses.'
If the initiative is to be effective, according to Dr McBean, it must address two particular challenges. First, research is needed to discover why natural disasters appear to be on the increase, and to identify human activities that can aggravate or mitigate their effect.
Second, scientists must address a perceived problem of communication: 'We have found a lot of evidence that policy makers may at times act in ignorance or simply disregard relevant scientific evidence of what's needed to prepare for or prevent devastation from a natural, predictable event like a hurricane,' said Dr McBean. 'We need to find new ways to communicate science to decision makers so that they understand how to integrate scientific evidence into their political and policy processes.'
With this latter goal in mind, a key component of the disaster mitigation initiative will focus on linking scientific advice to end users, such as local, regional and national governments, development agencies and humanitarian organisations. The ultimate goal, according to the ICSU, is to establish an international collaborative research and communications programme that will last for a decade or more.