Unesco can have a role in science development

June 18, 1999

The end of the 20th century is a good time to think big about science. The Unesco World Conference on Science, which opens in a week in Budapest, will address many key issues.

The most pressing might appear to be the rich world's near monopoly of top science (page 36). But expensive research is bound to happen in countries that can best afford it. The conference aims to get politicians to promise more money for science. Vigilance will be needed to ensure the promises are kept.

Closer to Unesco's heart is the issue of science and development. Better ways are needed to integrate new knowledge into sustainable development. If particle physics can be organised on a planet-wide basis, so should sustainable agriculture and urban development. Unesco has a role here along with national governments and non-governmental organisations.

Even more intractable is the control of science. Who decides on its direction? Many scientists work for companies which consider the ethical, human or environmental effects of their actions only when forced to. Such firms have a big say in university research and effectively control the use of scientific assets such as the genomes of many species, including our own.

Budapest cannot change all this. But it should remind scientists and their funders that we need structures that take account of responsibilities as well as opportunities. Both will be as vital in the next century as they have been in this one.

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