World environmental change needs urgent science

The International Council for Science (ICSU), meeting in Mozambique, is reviewing its current environmental programmes to ensure that they work together in a coordinated way. This news came out as ICSU noted that, of all the world ecosystem indicators that had been measured at the turn of the millennium, two out of three were in decline, leading to a degraded environment.

Human livelihoods, health and well-being are now seriously threatened, and interdisciplinary research coordinated on a world scale is urgently needed.

ICSU has been in operation for 76years and has moved its emphasis over time from the support of individual sciences to a realisation of the urgency of bringing all disciplines together to bear on common global problems.

Currently ICSU operates programmes on disaster risk, polar research, geosphere and biosphere, biodiversity, urban environments, climate and human dimensions of global change. The Mozambique meeting voted to establish a major new interdisciplinary programme for ten years on Ecosystem Change and Human Well-being.

ICSU, the International Council for Science, is welcoming social scientists into the fold. For most of its 76-year existence, ICSU has concentrated on the natural sciences, but today the call has gone out to national members, such as the Royal Society of New Zealand, to recommend social scientists to serve on ICSU’s planning and review committees.

ICSU currently has four scientific unions in the socialsciences, covering anthropology, ethnology, history of science, and psychology. But more input is needed from the likes of economics, law, sociology, demography and political science if ICSU is to tackle the Big Problems of the world in an integrated way.

New Zealanders will welcome this news, as the natural and social sciences have been partners in the Royal Society since 1997. ICSU says that integration is no longer an option, especially when disciplinary silos are giving way to interdisciplinary studies, and there is an increased demand for policy and practical relevance of science, especially in international development.

Lastly, huge increases in the amount of scientific data available on environmental and societal processes leads to a need to correlate them with each other.

Apart from the United Nations, there can’t be many other international bodies which boast 104 countries as members, plus another 29 international science bodies. ICSU, the International Council for Science, has been looking after science affairs for over 75 years and has just taken a look at the responsibilities that scientists must shoulder today.

ICSU has just adopted a new report by Physicist Bengt Gustafsson from Uppsala University at its triennial General Assembly, taking place in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. He balances scientist rights and
freedoms with their responsibilities to society and their profession.

Standards of honesty, integrity, accuracy, impartiality ethical conduct and respect are common to many professions, but scientists have a responsibility to benefit humanity through the work that they do to develop new knowledge, work to minimise dangers and harm to others, and stand accountable for their work and the methods they use.

These responsibilities become real when scientists’s countries wage war, or when that war is against new and dangerous diseases, or when scientists are paid by commercial concerns, or when they are asked for policy inputs.  Global advances in technology have seen global surveillance grow on an unprecedented scale, whether it takes the form of monitoring of environmental conditions or policing of citizens.

These systems, especially when applied by repressive regimes, can threaten human rights. What, asks Gustafsson, are the responsibilities of a scientist who is called upon to work in this field?

Dr Steve Thompson is Science and Innovation Promoter with the British High Commission in Wellington. Formerly he was chief executive of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and the Royal Society of New Zealand.