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Vol. 26 No. 6
November-December 2004

Strengthening International Science for the Benefit of Society: An Overview of the International Council for Science

by Carthage Smith and Thomas Rosswall

Founded in 1931, the International Council for Science (ICSU) is a nongovernmental organization representing a global membership that includes both national scientific bodies (101 members) and international scientific unions (27 members). Chemistry has played an important role in ICSU from the outset, with IUPAC being one of its original members.

Through its international network, ICSU coordinates interdisciplinary research to address major issues of relevance to both science and society. In addition, the Council actively advocates for freedom in the conduct of science, promotes equitable access to scientific data and information, and facilitates science education and capacity building.

ICSU Officers (L to R). Front: Roger Elliott (Treasurer, UK), Ana Maria Cetto (Secretary General, Mexico), Jane Lubchenco (President, USA), Hiroyuki Yoshikawa (Past-President, Japan). Back: David Parry (Vice-President, New Zealand), Goverdhan Mehta (President-Elect, India), Peter Tyson (Vice-President, South Africa).

The Council acts as a forum for the exchange of ideas, the communication of scientific information, and the development of scientific standards. ICSU’s members organize scientific conferences, congresses, and symposia all around the world—in excess of 600 per year—and also produce a wide range of newsletters, handbooks, learned journals, and proceedings.
ICSU also helps create international and regional networks of scientists with similar interests and maintains close working relationships with a number of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, including UNESCO and the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). Because of its broad membership, ICSU is frequently called upon to speak on behalf of the global scientific community and provide advice on matters ranging from ethics to the environment.

A Brief History
One of the oldest non-governmental organizations in the world, the Council is the result of the evolution and expansion of two earlier bodies known as the International Association for Academies (IAA) and the International Research Council (IRC). Reflecting the growing importance of scientific collaboration across national boundaries, the IAA was established in 1899 with 10 members (nine European nations and the USA). Around the same time, a number of scientific disciplines also created international associations. Some 20 years later (1919), as the need for interdisciplinary research to address the links between science and society became more evident, these bodies joined forces to create the IRC. IUPAC became a member of IRC in 1922.

In 1931, IRC members unanimously approved a proposal to reorganize the Council into a much larger organization composed of 40 national scientific bodies and 8 international scientific unions. Members wanted to highlight the principle that all parties were equal partners, and thus chose to call themselves the International Council for Scientific Unions.

ICSU continued to grow and evolve, adding many new members in both categories. The membership currently comprises 101 national bodies and 27 scientific unions. Over the years, ICSU began to address specific global issues through the creation of interdisciplinary bodies and developed partnerships with other organizations. In 1998, members agreed that the Council’s current composition and activities would be better reflected by modifying the name to the International Council for Science, while retaining the existing acronym.

Developing a Science Strategy
At the beginning of the 21st century, ICSU remains unique in its international and multidisciplinary membership. However, the growth of international science initiatives has made it clear that the Council must identify its own niche and focus on areas where its efforts will have the greatest impact. To this end, a new standing Committee on Scientific Planning and Review (CSPR) was established in 1998. CSPR and the Executive Board have initiated a number of activities to help define future needs and strategic priorities.

ICSU's Mission

In order to strengthen international science for the benefit of society, ICSU mobilizes the knowledge and resources of the international science community to:
• identify and address major issues of importance to science and society
• facilitate interaction among scientists across all disciplines and from all countries
• promote the participation of all scientists-regardless of race, citizenship, language, political stance, or gender-in the international scientific endeavor
• provide independent, authoritative advice to stimulate constructive dialogue between the scientific community and governments, civil society, and the private sector

Identifying Emerging Issues
ICSU is seeking to identify areas in which scientific developments could have significant impacts on technology, the economy, and society. In 2002, the Council published a meta-analysis of national and regional foresight studies, which had been commissioned by Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU) at the University of Sussex. The SPRU Report,1 provided the basis for a consultation in 2003 with all ICSU members on potential future priorities for science and society at the international level. This has led to the identification of 10 broad themes; some are already being partially addressed by ICSU, others are completely new.

Assessments of Specific Areas of Science
One of the biggest challenges facing any organization with a long history is determining whether its structure and operations meet the demands of the day. Over the years, ICSU has established a range of interdisciplinary bodies and policy/advisory committees that address international science issues. But one of the Council’s weaknesses has been failing to fully analyze how these groups evolve over time and to properly assess distinctions, complementarities, and areas of overlap in light of new needs and priorities.
Under the aegis of CSPR, ad hoc expert panels have been established to assess three broad areas: environment and its relation to sustainable development, data and information, and capacity building. The report on the first of these areas2 was published earlier this year and includes recommendations on the status of existing ICSU bodies as well as proposals for new interdisciplinary programs. The other two assessment reports will be published in late 2004 and early in 2005.

The Universality of Science and the Interface with Society
One of the founding principles of ICSU, which is embedded in its statutes, is the “Universality of Science.” The essential elements of this principle are non-discrimination and equity. In the past, particularly during the Cold War, ICSU’s Standing Committee on Freedom in the Conduct of Science enabled many grateful scientists to obtain visas to attend international meetings. Visa problems remain a major obstacle in some countries and for some nationalities. The changing international political climate and concerns about security have made it more difficult for scientists to travel freely and created new threats to universality and to the free exchange of data, information, and materials.
The future role and responsibilities of ICSU with regard to universality is one area of focus for the ongoing strategic review: “Science and Society: Rights and Responsibilities.” The other major area is the interface between science and society, including topics of pressing concern to all of science such as ethics, public communication, risk, and uncertainty. This important review, which will include recommendations for new ICSU activities, will be published early in 2005.

Enhancing the ICSU Grants Program
The ICSU Grants Programme, which is co-funded by UNESCO, seeks to support international and interdisciplinary issues that, because of their complex nature, are difficult to address through national or disciplinary channels. The program promotes forward-looking projects and, in many instances, awards are granted for areas of investigation that are not yet on the agenda of governments or other organizations. Although the overall budget is relatively small (USD850 000 for 2004), ICSU support often helps recipients attract additional funding from other sources. A minimum of three cooperating ICSU member organizations is required on any single grant project.
Over the past three years, ICSU has taken steps to improve the program by initiating a competitive peer-review process and identifying five broad priority areas: emerging science and technology, science and technology for sustainable development, capacity building and science education, dissemination of information on science and technology, and the science/policy interface.

Priority Themes 2003–04

Following a broad consultation with all ICSU members in 2003, 10 broad themes were identified for potential action by ICSU. For more details see “A Foresight Analysis of Priorities for Future ICSU Action” at <>.

1. nanotechnology
2. molecular biosciences
3. natural and man-made hazards
4. complex systems science
5. cognitive neurosciences
6. global change and earth system science
7. sustainable development
i. water
ii. energy
iii. health
iv. agriculture, food, and nutrition
v. biodiversity
8. data, information, and the digital divide
9. capacity building and investment in
basic science
10. science, society, and ethics

Regional Offices will Strengthen Global and Local Science
One of the major challenges for ICSU is to truly incorporate the needs and priorities of developing countries into its strategic planning and other activities. At the 27th General Assembly (Rio de Janeiro, September 2002), national and union members adopted a recommendation that ICSU establish four regional offices for developing countries, to be located in Africa, the Arab Region, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The goal of this fundamental change in the ICSU structure is twofold. First, it should enhance participation of developing country scientists and regional scientific organizations in ICSU programs and activities. Second, it will allow ICSU to play a more active role in strengthening science within the context of regional priorities and building capacity.Things have moved rapidly since the General Assembly in 2002 and, after extensive regional consultations, ICSU has signed an agreement with the National Research Foundation in South Africa to host the first ICSU regional office. Negotiations are being concluded with the Mexican Academy of Sciences to host the second office and discussions are underway with potential hosts in the other regions.One of the most important aims of this decentralization is to improve interaction among members of the ICSU family within a specific geographic area. In this way, ICSU hopes to both strengthen regional scientific networks and help strengthen the presence of scienists from developing countries in the international arena.

Using Science to Help Shape the Future
In recent years, ICSU has taken a much more proactive role in major international initiatives that are not exclusively focused on science, but where science has an important contribution to make. With increased emphasis on the links between science and society, the Council recognizes the need to strengthen its existing partnerships and expand its network to include links with social and medical sciences and engineering, as well as relevant players in the non-scientific community: government agencies, business and industry, and civil society.

Sustainable Development
At the request of the United Nations, ICSU collaborated with the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the Inter Academy Panel on International Issues, and the International Social Science Council to organize the global science and technology community’s contributions to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held August 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Subsequently, this partnership provided input to the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, which is an annual forum with political leaders and other key stakeholders. During the 2004-2005, the commission will work on issues of freshwater, sanitation and human settlements—all topics in which science has a critical role to play.

ICSU Affiliates

National Members (101)
ICSU’s national members provide input, from a national, multi-disciplinary perspective, on priority areas for future ICSU activities. They also play an important role in facilitating links with national governments and science agencies. The majority of ICSU national members are scientific academies, although some are national funding agencies or other nationally representative science bodies.

Scientific Union Members (27)
ICSU relies on its union members to provide scientific expertise and input, from an international, disciplinary perspective, on scientific priority areas for future ICSU activities. They play a crucial role as representatives of the scientific community.

Scientific Associates (23)
Whether international or regional scientific organizations, ICSU’s scientific associates bring their own particular perspectives to relevant ICSU discussions and activities. For example, the Third World Academy of Sciences is a key partner in defining ICSU’s strategy for developing countries

The Information Society
The first ever U.N. World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is taking place in two phases (Geneva, 2003 and Tunis, 2005). It is a unique opportunity to address some of the critical issues that underpin the “digital divide” and are currently preventing universal access to scientific data and information.

In March 2003, ICSU and its Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) organized an international meeting of scientists that was hosted by UNESCO in Paris. The outcome was an agenda for action, “Science in the Information Society,” which has subsequently been formally endorsed by many ICSU member organizations. Working in partnership with other international science organizations, principally CERN and TWAS, this agenda was highlighted and further developed in a series of WSIS preparatory meetings and at key events at the Geneva Summit. It was incorporated, almost in its entirety, into the formal documents that were eventually agreed upon by heads of state in Geneva.

In Preparation for the 28th General Assembly
China will host the next General Assembly at Suzhou in October 2005. This will mark an important milestone in ICSU’s evolution, as the overall strategy for 2006–2012 will be unveiled. In addition to the activities highlighted above, there are number of other exciting developments in the pipeline that will be incorporated into this future roadmap. For example, planning is actively underway for a major new multi-disciplinary research program, the International Polar Year 2007–2008; a working group on energy and sustainable societies is preparing its recommendations; and, another ad hoc group is considering basic sciences.

ICSU is going through an intense period of growth and change. It will continue to focus on what makes it unique: the ability to bring together scientists from different countries and disciplines to address scientific issues for which an international, interdisciplinary approach is essential. The General Assembly in Suzhou will be an opportunity for all the ICSU members to reaffirm their own commitment to working together to strengthen international science for the benefit of society.

1 Identification of Emerging Issues in Science and Society: An International Perspective on National Foresight Studies. ICSU. 2002. ISBN 0-930357-54-X.
2 Environment and its Relation to Sustainable Development; report of the CSR Assessment Panel. ICSU. 2004 ISBN 0-930357-59-0.
Both reports are available online at <>.

Carthage Smith <[email protected]> and Thomas Rosswall <[email protected]> are, respectively, deputy executive director and executive director of ICSU, located in Paris, France.For more information e-mail <[email protected]>.

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