Science careers

June 25, 1999

Education opportunities for the developing world and jobs for scientists are on the agenda at the World Conference on Science.

The World Conference on Science, which starts tomorrow in Budapest, will involve thousands of senior figures from the global science community. There has been nothing like it for at least 20 years, but it has only brushed across the mental map of most scientists, let alone the general public. The aim is to look at science and society - ie, how science works and what we get out of it.

The conference has been organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the International Council on Science. The influence of these bodies, and the huge array of ministers, policy officials and non-governmental organisations taking part, lead many to fear that it will simply be the world's biggest talking shop.

Much of the conference will be devoted to getting politicians to commit more money to science. But nations spend on science on the basis of national competitiveness, and the amount they put into enhancing science for human development via aid budgets is small. Funding science elsewhere is not a national vote winner, so it is quite likely that the conference will produce little in the way of hard cash. However, scientists and science careers will be a factor in the conference. Ministers will probably endorse some form of a document called the Science Agenda. This sets out a strategy for science in the next century aimed at achieving the goals of "advancing the objectives of international peace and the common welfare of humankind". Postgraduate and research training are mentioned, and the equal participation of women is one of the themes on the agenda.

It may be dull, but any event of this scale is bound to see some business done. Initiatives will be announced and international partnerships will be formed. In a small way, things will happen. For developing countries, the big issue is how to make science produce economic benefits and lead to sustainable development. In 1994 global expenditure in R&D was estimated by Unesco at $470 billion. Africa's share of this was 0.5 per cent and has declined since.

If the North is not going to put in the science infrastructure developing countries so badly need, what will it do? A likely "solution" will be more North-South research collaboration, training and networking in some areas. More funding for training researchers from the developing world and research support for joint initiatives between developing and developed nations seem likely.

Earlier this year, Maurizio Iaccarino, Unesco's assistant director-general for science, called on member states to increase the number of postgraduate courses on offer for scientists from the developing world. Referring to one of the Muslim world's few world-class scientists, he said "one Abdus Salam is not enough. We need several thousand, and we can only have them if there is proper training ... Industrialised countries promote postgraduate training for developing countries. We hope that, being such an important forum, some countries will announce on a voluntary basis the institution of funds for the training of developing world scientists in different fields. It could be the training of science journalists, hydrologists, biotechnologists or geologists." Moves to set up an international centre in London to train science journalists from around the world have begun, backed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The career issues facing young scientists have not been forgotten. The issues have been thrashed out in regional forums. One of the last to take place before the conference was the International Forum of Young Scientists. One of its roles will be to look at the general trends in motivation, education and training of scientists, career prospects and job opportunities for PhDs, as well as the creation of global and national scientific communities. Outcomes will be fed into the world conference.

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