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Science is International

by Julia Marton-Lefèvre

The author is Executive Director of Leadership for Environment and Development International Inc., and the recipient of the 1999 AAAS International Scientific Cooperation Award. Presented at the CAIP Annual Luncheon Meeting on Sunday, January 24, 1999, AAAS Annual Meeting, Anaheim, CA

It is a great honor to receive the AAAS Award for International Scientific Cooperation. As I said yesterday, the title of this award already tells you that one is not alone in accepting it. All of the words: “international,” cooperation,” and “science” imply working as a part of a team. Thus, I accepted the award yesterday as a member of that team, consisting of my immediate colleagues at ICSU, where I spent nearly 20 years: the staff in Paris, various Boards of Directors of distinguished and dedicated scientists, all of whom could be in my place today; the huge network of scientists and science policy makers who constitute ICSU, and the numerous partner organizations with which ICSU worked, from within and outside of the UN system. The objective of this network has been, for nearly a hundred years, “to encourage scientific cooperation for the benefit of humanity.” It was a wonderful privilege for me to contribute to attaining such laudable objectives.

I would like to say a few personal words about how I actually got here. I sort of knew that I was an “international” person when, as a very young girl, my parents decided to take us away from our native Hungary. We settled in Vienna where I began, for a few months, to catch up on a lost school year, then we came to the United States for what we thought would be a brief trip, only to accept an award for my parents “bravery in journalism.” It was my mother who decided that we should not return to the Old World which was full of painful memories. Thus, within a few months, this international person settled in to her third country. I cannot help but look back in gratitude to those early years in the U.S. I hardly spoke any English, but before long I was fully accepted in my school, rising rapidly from being a member of the school patrol (a great honor in elementary school!) to holding the top offices in my student government. Maybe it is true that Hungarians go in a revolving door behind you and come out ahead, but in this case I think the credit should go to the warm-hearted welcome the people of the United States gave to me and my family, and to so many other refugees and foreigners before and after us.

I continued on the international path during my relatively short period in this country: I spent my junior year in France, and two years in Asia in the Peace Corps. After graduate school I returned to Europe and took my first bona fide international job at the UN — hired by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to work at UNESCO on a brand new, post-Stockholm Conference program, devoted to environmental education. I went to Paris full of idealism about international cooperation, and about what needed to be done to save, what we finally realized, was our only one earth. Those were difficult days at UNESCO however, and it was hardly a place for a young Hungarian-American woman, full of energy and new ideas about how to change the world. That wasn’t really the business that UNESCO was in at that time. It was more about politics, power, and the Cold War, which was waning on the outside world, but not inside UNESCO.

I recall vividly meeting Dr. Al Baez, at a UNESCO consultation I had organized in the late 1970s. Al Baez was distinguished for much more than his famous daughter, Joan. For us he was, in addition to his contributions to physics, a great science educator and science communicator. It was from Al Baez that I first heard about The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), and I first began to appreciate the role of the Non-Governmental world in international cooperation. Al, who had been an important UNESCO director before I got to UNESCO, was spending much of his time, in those days, chairing and organizing an ICSU Committee on the Teaching of Science. Listening to Al speak with so much enthusiasm about ICSU obviously became a life-changing moment for me. By 1978 I realized that I was paralyzed at UNESCO, and began to look around for another way to change the world. ICSU gave me the chance to do that.

I remember so vividly being interviewed for my job at ICSU by the then-Secretary-General, the distinguished Nobel laureate, the late Sir John Kendrew. At that time ICSU was looking for an Assistant Executive Secretary, and I had made the short-list, the rare woman candidate in what was then very much a male world. So, one handicap was that I was a woman, and another was that I had studied ecology and environmental planning, certainly not a science in Sir John’s mind in those days. Still, by miracle, I was offered the job. I remember the awkward moment when I told ICSU’s then Executive Secretary, before accepting the offer, that I had planned to have a second child sometime in the years ahead and that I simply wanted ICSU to know this, and to retract the offer, if this would be a problem. I don’t know the reaction, except of course the offer was maintained, and we laughed about this story for many years after my second son Nicolas was born, on schedule, 18 months later. Remember that this was Europe in 1978! I managed to carry out this plan so well that I even attended ICSU’s General Committee meeting in Brussels the week before Nicolas was born.

So, I began as Assistant Executive Secretary in ICSU in 1978, still full of ideas and energy, and still full of a desire to change the world. I will always remember walking into my first ICSU Executive Board meeting and thinking that not only was I the only woman, but I was certainly the only person with a sense of humor which I would have to seriously reign in to keep my job. The only woman part of this early observation remained true for many years, alas, but at least laughter and good spirits had no gender or cultural borders.

The President at that time was the late Bruno Straub, the eminent Hungarian biochemist who later became President of Hungary. Bruno did not wish to be involved at all in my selection, in order not to be criticized about the proliferating Hungarian “mafia” in the world of science. In spite of this we became great colleagues and friends. The Secretary General was Sir John, who became President of ICSU later on. He passed away in August 1997. A Kendrew fund is just being set up at St. John’s College, Oxford, which he also presided over for many years, which will provide fellowships to students from developing countries in science and music. I have inherited John Kendrew’s wonderful opera record and CD collection, and lots of memories of a great internationalist. The US Member on the Executive Board was Tom Malone. I know that Tom has received this same award before me, and know also that Tom’s tireless efforts to promote science across the borders could never be praised enough. Tom was replaced years later by Walter Rosenblith who was then Foreign Secretary of the Academy. As Vice President of ICSU Walter took on, the important projects of examining ICSU’s role in a contemporary agenda for science, and the need for ICSU to forge partnerships beyond its own membership. I was particularly involved in both these important reflections which took place between 1985 and 1990. It was at the 1985 Ringberg Conference on International Science and the Role of ICSU: A Contemporary Agenda that we suggested to one of the participants, Professor Federico Mayor, that he might try his hand at bringing about the needed change at UNESCO. I was happy to participate in the celebration of Walter Rosenblith’s 85th birthday a few months ago in Cambridge, and can tell you that he is still the same active internationalist that he ever was. Later remarkable US members of ICSU’s Boards have included Rita Colwell, and Hal Mooney who has been Secretary General since 1996. These are all eminent scientists and committed to science international.

Before long at ICSU I realized the strength that a non-governmental organization has over its inter-governmental counterparts. We didn’t need layers and layers of instructions or approvals to get anything started — all we needed was a clarity of vision, a common purpose, and the energy to move ahead. My role as Assistant Executive Secretary, then later on as Executive Secretary and finally Executive Director, was simple: I was the “choreographer” charged with ensuring that all that ICSU was capable of accomplishing actually did happen. The secret was the ability to listen to and understand the various cultural and disciplinary inputs to our planning efforts; the ability to bring all this richness together into a coherent program of action taking into consideration the political and financial realities; and then carrying it out transparently, openly and with energy. Never for a moment did I feel that this was impossible or not worthwhile.

So at the end of the 20th century, who are the major actors in international science? In some ways calling science international is hardly necessary — by definition it is international, although I know that in such a great country as this one, this idea does not always come automatically to mind. Think of any discipline of science, and imagine it without the free and open communication between scholars from other parts of the world. This is certainly true of the natural sciences, and hopefully increasingly so in the social sciences. So, individual scientists are the key actors in international science. Organizations are simply set up to help these individuals work more effectively. Let us just remind ourselves briefly of the history of these organizations.

In the last years of the last century, a handful of remarkable scientists decided to create an International Association of Academies, with ten founding members, in 1899, including the National Academy of Sciences of this country and five German academies. The objective of the Association was to “initiate and otherwise to promote scientific undertakings of general interest, proposed by one or more of the associated Academies, and to facilitate scientific intercourse between different countries.” By a few years after the establishment of the IAA we can see signs of the kind of action which justified it, in for example, the creation of a world system of seismological and geological observation stations.

After the outbreak of the first World War, the IAA lost its energy, and it was not until a few years after the war, at a conference in Paris in 1918, that it was decided to create a new organization, the International Research Council, with only five Academy Members, none from the Central Powers nor from countries which remained neutral during the war. Thus, the new body was far from respecting the tenets of the international, or universal nature of science. The IRC remained in existence until 1931, and had as one of its goals, the initiation or the “formation of international Associations or Unions deemed to be useful to the progress of science”. It is during these years that we see the beginning of the bi-cameral nature of the organization of international science, consisting of national and interdisciplinary academies of science, and international disciplinary bodies or Unions of Science. The problem with the IRC was its restricted nature as the Central Powers and the neutral countries were excluded, and thus the wings of science were cut from the outset.

In 1931 the IRC dissolved and quite naturally converted itself to the International Council of Scientific Unions, ICSU. The new name was meant to recognize the non-political nature of science as represented by the independent scientific strength of the Unions. At the formation of ICSU there were 40 national members and 8 Scientific Union Members. Today, ICSU’s name has changed slightly to even better reflect its reality. Thus, since last year, ICSU is known as the International Council for Science, although the acronym of ICSU has been kept to remind us of its long history. Today ICSU’s membership comprises over 90 National Scientific Members, and 25 International Scientific Union Members.

The strengths of ICSU have been, in my opinion, many. Firstly, its clear adherence to a non-political agenda. The needs of science have always set the program for ICSU, and those who have tried to introduce politics have always been easily out-voted. ICSU’s strength has also increased with its strict adherence to the principles of the universality of science. Thus, ICSU, since its establishment in 1931, having learned the lessons of its more politicized predecessor, the IRC, has “vigorously pursued a policy of non-discrimination, affirming the rights and freedom of scientists throughout the world to engage in international scientific activity without regard to such factors as citizenship, religion, creed, political stance, ethnic origin, race, colour, language, age or sex.” ICSU has never abandoned these principles, admitting members who were not popular on the world political scene and canceling meetings when host countries refused to give visas to scientists for political reasons. This has demanded the clarity of purpose I spoke about earlier. I particularly enjoyed this part of my job as I was totally convinced that our principles were worth fighting for.

I will always remember a meeting held at UNESCO in 1987, co-sponsored by three cooperating bodies in the ocean sciences. One of these was the inter-governmental World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the other was a joint ICSU-UNESCO Committee on Climate Changes in the Ocean and the third was ICSU’s own Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research, SCOR. I went to UNESCO for the opening of this meeting, and chose, in my remarks, to call attention to the fact that it was unusual, but very positive, that intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations were joining hands in such an important topic as the study of the world’s oceans. A few hours later, as I was happily back in my own office at ICSU, across the river from UNESCO, I was asked to return as the Conference was threatening to break down, due to serious political pressures. Apparently the African delegations to UNESCO had noticed that there were some South African scientists on the list of participants, and demanded that UNESCO stop the meeting. I then spent hours preparing my fight: by studying UNESCO’s own internal rules; discussing with my friend, the recently elected Director General of UNESCO, Professor Federico Mayor, who was away from Paris during those days, and, getting the French National Research Council to give us another venue for the meeting, in case I did not succeed. After hours of stubborn negotiations the ICSU view prevailed and we managed to convince the UNESCO officials and the angry delegations that the meeting was about science and not about politics, and that the participants present were invited because they had something to contribute to the debate at hand, which was about the world’s oceans. The three South African scientists even volunteered to sign a statement about their own anti-apartheid views, which added strength to ICSU’s case. Thus, we were able to continue the meeting in peace at UNESCO, setting a precedent for increased cooperation between the UN bodies and ICSU, which was to be the theme of the next decade.

Not only the universality of science, but also the wider network of partners that science needs to carry out its mission became my own personal agenda during the past 10 years, when I was the chief executive officer of ICSU. This, I think, is a needed ingredient for international science. Our network thus grew and grew, to include a large number of partners from the national and inter-governmental spheres and from the growing number of organizations known as “non-governmental”, or what is now called the organizations representing “civil society”.

Although ICSU was well on its way to carry out its mission of promoting international scientific cooperation before the United Nations system was established, it would be impossible to describe international science without referring to the UN bodies, and notably to UNESCO. UNESCO is the only UN body with the word “Science” in its title, and without it ICSU might be a very different organization today. The Preparatory Conference convened in London in 1945 drafted a constitution for a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in which it gave instructions to consult with the International Council of Scientific Unions on methods of collaboration to strengthen the programmes of both bodies in the area of their common concerns. This has led to long years of close cooperation, which has included financial support for the work of ICSU, with no conditions, and mostly a joint commitment to shared goals. It would be difficult to imagine the history of ICSU or UNESCO without the other during these past 50 years.

Several other parts of the UN system deal with science, although only UNESCO has the “S” specifically in its name. It is perhaps the work in environment which best illustrates both the wealth of expertise and the confusion and inevitable turf battles which have emerged. In all this, ICSU has remained strong, again because of its clarity of purpose, and also because it has no competing counterparts. ICSU’s framers were extremely wise to set up a single international body devoted to scientific cooperation. Can you imagine the confusion if there were international organizations for the earth sciences, for the biological sciences, the physical sciences, and so on, and a separate body of national scientific concerns. Now that we know more about the contributions of science to human development, the only improvement we could suggest to the original formula would be to have included the human sciences in the design for the early ICSU.

In describing the variety of actors involved in international environmental programs I could confuse you with a recitation of endless acronyms of UN and other bodies, which you would find meaningless. I will not do that, but simply remind you that scientists have been involved in studies of the earth system for a very long time. In the mid 1950s ICSU launched the important International Geophysical Year, whose political and scientific legacy is still with us. It was after the IGY that ICSU felt confident enough to initiate programs on a larger scale than ever before. So, starting in 1964, the decade-long International Biological Program began and left its important contribution to the ecological sciences. Then. in the 1970s the Global Atmospheric Research Program, the first undertaking in full partnership with a UN body, the WMO was begun to study the transient behavior of the atmosphere and the factors that would lead to better understanding of the physical basis for climate. . These three important precursors pointed the way for the multitude of cooperative programs to study the earth system that has characterized the last 30 years of this century.

The scientific community was already much involved in the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm. It was just a few years before Stockholm that ICSU set its Committee on Science and Technology in Developing Countries (COSTED) to stimulate and facilitate the participation of scientists from developing countries in international science, and then the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, SCOPE, to advance knowledge of the influence of humans on their environment as well as the effects of environmental changes upon people. These were important steps preparing ICSU for the full participation on the international scene in the 1990′s

In 1990, ICSU was invited to be the chief scientific adviser to the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro. This invitation came in recognition for the scientific community’s active and visible role in a number of programs launched after the Stockholm Conference. Foremost in this was the work carried out by SCOPE, notably its work on the biogeochemical cycles, especially the carbon cycle, which helped turn political attention to the greenhouse effect, and also the much -praised SCOPE study of the Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War. Other excellent examples of international cooperative work toward increased understanding of the earth system include the World Climate Research (WCRP) – sponsored first by ICSU and UNESCO, and later by the Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission (IOC), looking at the physical climate system; the International Geosphere Biosphere Program: A study of Global Change, (IGBP), set up by the entire ICSU family in 1986 to look at the global interactions between the living and non-living processes that together underpin the habitability of our planet; the structure and function of biological diversity (DIVERSITAS) and the study of the interactions between human society and its environment on a planetary scale, the International Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Program (IHDP) set up jointly by ICSU and the International Social Sciences Council in 1996.

In the 1990s a number of global observing systems were also launched as a result of a common concern by governments and scientists of the need to keep the earth system in its totality under continuous observation. These observing systems, GCOS (on climate), GOOS (the world’s oceans) and GTOS (terrestrial observations) are jointly sponsored by a number of UN bodies and the single non-governmental partner: ICSU.

With these vast number of important global programs as a part of the development of international science, it was natural for the scientific community to become a full partner with five UN bodies in the organization of the Second World Climate Conference in 1990, and then to accept the challenge to move the international scientific effort to a more noticeable policy level by preparing the Rio Conference. This was done by involving all of the national and Union actors involved in science to establish links with their national delegations to the Rio Conference, and to ensure that science as given due consideration in the Conference preparations. We put together a very ambitious conference just a year before Rio on An Agenda of Science for Environment and Development into the 21st Century: ASCEND 21. This was the first time that scientists: physical, chemical, biological, medical, and social, with engineers came together to contribute their knowledge to the issues of grave common concern. The outcome of the Conference provided a real input to the UN Conference in Rio. Notably in convincing the UN to include a Chapter (35) on Science for Environment and Development in Agenda 21, but also by resulting in a solemn “commitment on the part of the international scientific community as a whole to work together so that improved and expanded scientific research and the systematic assessment of scientific results, combined with a prediction of impacts, would enable policy options in environment and development to be evaluated on the basis of sound scientific facts.”

All of the activities I have referred to here were launched in response to the growing realization of the extent to which the changes in our planet threaten the earth’s carrying capacity, and the increasing recognition by governments that scientific knowledge of the earth system is a necessary ingredient for wise policy making. Changes in the earth system extend across national boundaries and scientific disciplines, thus, the programs put in place have, by necessity become international and interdisciplinary. Systematic investigation on a global scale has only recently become feasible. Given the high cost and the lack of adequate human resources to carry out these investigations, the coordination and cohesion of the international research programs and observations systems is vital.

I have given brief examples of international cooperation in the environment, simply because this is what was the most visible during the past 20 years of my own involvement in the world of science. There are many other examples of course. I could have given you a talk about the intensity of cooperative action during this same period in the mathematical sciences, or in astronomy. What characterizes all of these activities is that they involve thousands of scientists throughout the globe driven by the common language of science a common curiosity to understand our planet and the common knowledge that science is a truly international endeavor.

Finally, in the constantly growing stage on which international science has been taking place, the need to address problems in an interdisciplinary and global manner has reached heights not known before. ICSU’s own interdisciplinary bodies, addressing issues which none of the Members (National or Union) can look at alone have grown in number and in diversity. The links with the social sciences have also grown in such areas as the human dimensions of global change, anthropology, psychology, and geography, which has always played a key role linking the natural and the social scientists. In an ideal world the International Council for Science would encompass science in the way the German language describes it as “wissenchaft”. And finally international cooperation in science is reaching out to emerging countries, where the organization of science is either young, or countries which had not been comfortable about scientific cooperation up until recently. No one has made more contributions to science in the so-called “developing world as the late Professor Abdus Salam, Nobel laureate in physics and founder of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). At the ceremony launching TWAS in 1985, Abdus Salam described international science better than I ever could: “Even as we are gathered here in a Third World context, I remain conscious of the fact that science as such has no national affiliation. The history of science indeed, involves the history of diverse civilisations.” This, of course was a positive philosophy, but the responsibility of science and its increasingly global interests to help scientists in less developed countries remains and the commitment of all the organizations I referred to today to capacity building is strong.

I myself left ICSU a year an a half ago, not because I stopped believing in all that I have told you, but simply because I had a chance to contribute specifically in this area of capacity building in a newer organization to which I hope I have taken all the valuable lessons I have learned at ICSU. My new program is also an ambitious one, but does not have the long distinguished history that I have just described to you. The Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) program is a global, independent, education foundation, originally set up by The Rockefeller Foundation, to provide continuing professional education for outstanding mid-career individuals in both public and private sectors, introducing them to issues of the environment and development and honing their skills as future leaders who will deal with these problems around the world. LEAD is now an independent foundation with programs in most parts of the world, and I have the challenge of being its first chief executive officer. One of the ways that I will continue to help international science is to take to the World Conference on Science, organized jointly by ICSU and UNESCO in June, a delegation of 26 young scientists from all over the world, half men half women, who are LEAD alumni, and who I am sure will make a great contribution to that meeting.


Statutes of the International Council for Science

Science International: A history of the International Council of Scientific Unions, Frank Greenaway, Cambridge University Press, 1996

ICSU: the first Sixty Years; Science International, Special issue, September 1991

Understanding Our Planet: An overview of the major scientific activities of ICSU and its partners that address global environmental change, ICSU, 1996

An Agenda of Science for Environment and Development into the 21st Century, Dooge et. al., Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Ideals and Realities: Selected Essays of Adus Salam, World Scientific, 1987