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Advancing Science in a Global Context: Scientific Engagement at the United Nations


Ellen Platts, representative to the Coalition Council for the American Anthropological Association


  • Presenters
    • Maya Godbole, Doctoral Candidate, City University of New York (CUNY)
    • David Livert, Associate Professor, Penn State 
    • Sarah Mancoll, Policy Director, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI)
    • Teresa Ober, Postdoctoral Research, University of Notre Dame (participated via pre-recorded video)  
    • Priya Sandanapitchai, Research Associate, Francois Xavier Bagnoud Center, Rutgers University 
    • Peter Walker, Fellow, American Psychological Association 
  • Overview
    • This session, presented by representatives from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), discussed how scientific organizations can participate in advocacy work at the United Nations (UN). It comprised of an overview of the structure of the UN, the ways in which civil society organizations may engage with the UN, and the ways in which younger individuals, including graduate students, may participate in this work.  
  • Background on UN
    • There are three key groups to the functioning of the UN. These are the UN staff and agencies, member nations, and civil society. Of the several principal organs of the UN, the most important for the purposes of this presentation is the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This is the mechanism through which civil society organizations may connect with the UN.  
    • ECOSOC focuses on issues of society, the economy, and the environment. The ECOSOC Commission is comprised of member nations and UN staff, and meets one time per year. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can also become accredited members of ECOSOC and take part in NGO committees. Many of these committees shadow member nation commissions. This is the primary way in which civil society can engage policy at this level, coordinate its voice, and interact with the UN. The Conference of NGOs (CoNGO) organizes the NGO community at the UN, and provides governing structure for key interest areas, including ageing, children’s rights, HIV/AIDS, and the family.  
  • UN Human Rights Goals
    • One of the primary goals of ECOSOC is the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These goals, which emerged from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by all 193 member nations in 2015, are now considered to be the ‘currency’ of work at the UN. All organizations, individuals, and agencies should be able to map their work onto the SDGs in order to effectively communicate with other organizations, member nations, and UN staff and agencies. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has provided a summary table on the linkages between the SDGs and human rights.  
  • Recommendations
    • The panelists recommended ECOSOC accreditation as the most flexible form of coordination with the UN. Accreditation provides NGOs with the ability to submit statements to various UN commissions, organize side events during commission meetings, access the UN campuses across the globe, and communicate with the ECOSOC subsidiary bodies. In order to apply, an NGO must already be established and have government recognition (though tax status is not necessary). They must also have a democratic decision-making process in place and be relevant to ECOSOC concerns. New applications for ECOSOC accreditation are reviewed in January and May. Once approved, the organization is able to send representatives to meetings of the NGO committees, and observe commission meetings.  
    • Recommendations for characteristics of NGO representatives to the UN were that the person have a doctorate; have international interests; and be good listeners, who attend meetings and conference to see where the skills and strengths of their organization may be applied. Institutional inertia at the UN is a strong force, and so patience is also a key characteristic. SPSSI provides a set of guidelines on their website for their representatives, which may be useful to other organizations. The panelists urged member organizations of the Coalition to consider pursuing ECOSOC accreditation, and to join them in their advocacy at this level. They extended their willingness to help other organizations through this process. 
  • Examples of UN Advocacy 
    • The panelists provided examples of the advocacy that SPSSI has undertaken at the UN, including their work to ensure mental health is included in the SDGs. Importantly, Target 3.4 of SDG 3, which focuses on good health and well-being, does specifically mention mental health. The inclusion of language in these overarching, normative documents is important, as it provides entry points for advocacy. SPSSI representatives have also worked on the issues of ageing, the rights of older persons, and climate change.  
    • Current SPSSI committee interns Priyadharshany Sandanapitchai and Maya Godbole, and former intern Teresa Ober, discussed their experience in advocacy through SPSSI at the UN. Their internships included organizing side events, networking with other colleagues focused on human rights advocacy at other NGOs, improving administrative skills, and deepening their understanding of the connections between their doctoral work and human rights.  Sandanapitchai emphasized that each intern has a unique experience, and that all are welcome, whether they have a specific interest, a broad passion, or both.


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • United Nations Economic and Social Council recommended as path for scientific advocacy within UN.
    • ECOSOC accreditation as the most flexible form of coordination with the UN.
  • NGO representatives to the UN should:
    • have a doctorate;
    • have international interests;
    • be good listeners, who attend meetings and conference to see where the skills and strengths of their organization may be applied.
  • Questions for organizations to think about in considering participating in advocacy at the UN:  
    • How does your work/interests overlap with UN entities?  
    • In what ways do they map on to the SDGs?  
    • What is the NGO landscape in your scientific community?  
    • How involved are your organizations in international affairs and/or the UN?  
    • Would ECOSOC membership appeal to your organization?  
    • In what ways do you see opportunities for graduate students to become more involved in advocacy?  



  • United Nations
  • Advocacy
  • Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI)


Additional Resources: