Flavia Schlegel, who was a medical doctor and public health official before serving as Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences for UNESCO, said that her personality fits that of an engineer.
“I’m always trying to understand stuff,” she said in an interview with AAAS. “But I also have a desire to solve problems. I don’t think I’m the basic scientist. It’s more like the applied science. It’s like a medical doctor is like an engineer. It’s just that my machine is the human body.”
The first machines that Schlegel grew up trying to understand were trains. Her father worked in the Swiss Federal Railway system and her experience riding trains with him inspired her to be curious about the natural world. And her parents didn’t hold her back — they encouraged her to explore her curiosity and invest in education.
“Neither my father nor my mother ever told me, ‘You shouldn’t do that because you are a girl,’” Schlegel said. “And since my father was working with trains...I got a very early interest in machines and technical questions.”
But it was her experience suffering from a health condition as a child living in east Switzerland, along the Rhine, that piqued her interest in studying medicine. “I was very grateful for the medical services that I got,” she said.
At university, she began studying infectious diseases and traveling. That topic interested her because “they touch everybody,” so she chose it for her doctoral thesis. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Switzerland, and the topic of infectious disease ended up hitting close to home.
“It was a tough peak both in my personal, private life,” she said. “I had a friend who got infected very early on. So it was really a topic of the time.”
Then, a colleague of Schlegel’s who worked in an AIDS hospice had to quit because she was suffering from cancer. She asked Schlegel to take over for her. “Of course I will,” she remembered saying.
“I was confronted with people dying...very early in my career. They were all dying way too young,” she said. “Sometimes, not a very easy death...it was very heavy.
“But then on the other hand I felt like I was doing something very useful to support these people to find their way towards their end of life. It made me think of the circumstances that led these people to become infected by a preventable disease. It’s just not right. That’s why I went into public health.”
In 1997, she joined the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health as the director of the AIDS Section. Later, she served as the director of the Health Policy, Research and Education Division.
“I wanted to understand better the factors which would lead to somebody getting infected, so somebody else would not have to get sick,” she said. “It also was a question of justice that everybody, everywhere, every boy and girl, would have the information, have the knowledge, have the tools, have access to all that information so that they can take an informed position and can protect themselves and others.”
Schlegel’s background in public health and experience she got later working to build relationships with foreign governments on behalf of the Swiss government prepped her for her current role with UNESCO. At the helm of the Natural Sciences section of UNESCO, Schlegel and her team help communities around the world build soft power using scientific knowledge to create peace and eradicate poverty.
More specifically, her section is helping countries with water management, biodiversity, adapting to the effects of climate change, disaster risk reduction and appropriate management of natural resources. She is also encouraging the partners that she works with to encourage more women to pursue education in the STEM fields. Additionally, her team is finding ways to preserve the knowledge and practices of indigenous communities around the world and help members of those communities achieve justice.
“How can we valorize that knowledge? How can we appreciate that?” she offered as examples of the types of questions the Natural Sciences section of UNESCO is trying to answer. “How can the traditional academic system come to terms with this completely less hierarchical knowledge system?”
UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program, which develops and promotes sustainable use and conservation of natural resources of ecosystems around the world and seeks to improve the relationship between people and their environment, is one of several ways that the Natural Sciences section aims to answer those questions and put the answer to those questions into action. The program has 669 biosphere reserves all over the world, which combined is about the size of China and encompasses the lives of about 250 million people.
“What we're trying to do with these Biosphere Reserves is to make the case that people can leave the sort of harmony with the old local ecosystem without destroying it,” she said. “If you’re using your resources sustainably, they will last more or less forever. Over the course of time, with additional knowledge, you can adapt your management of natural resources.”
One of the ways that Schlegel and the Natural Sciences division helps countries manage their biosphere reserves is by building dialogue between governments, industries and the communities that live in the reserves. Another way is by building dialogue between scientists and policymakers. She said that policymakers should be well-informed when making decisions and, in order to do so, they should listen to scientists.
But even when policymakers are listening to scientists, they often communicate in different ways because they have different goals. That’s where Schlegel and her team step in.
“We have to find a common language because there is a strong belief that knowledge is a global public good and it should be accessible to everybody and respected by everybody and not manipulated as it [has been] done so many times by politicians,” she said.
There have been several examples where the Natural Sciences section has successfully filled a knowledge gap or helped broker an agreement between governments in terms of natural resources management, using scientific knowledge and understanding. Some of their recent work includes helping to settle a border dispute between two Asian countries separated by a river, working to improve understanding of the Ebola outbreak in Africa and helping to adapt to water shortages in the Middle East. Sometimes, though, the inclusion of scientific knowledge in a country’s policy making dialogue doesn’t affect the policy outcome. Schlegel isn’t naive to this fact.
“There are very different approaches to improving the science-policy interface and this is something that scientists don’t understand easily, that they could make a very good case and it still isn’t taken into account when [a] policy decision is made,” she said. “And I think this is something where scientists just have to learn that lesson.
“But I also think that through our extensive networks we are trying to create this generation of scientists who really also see themselves as citizens, that what they do as scientists has an impact, and not just in the laboratory, but somewhere in the world as well.”