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United Nations embraces science’s best minds

Just another talking club or a genuine attempt to give science more weight in policy matters of global importance? Time will tell whether the United Nations’ newly created scientific advisory board, whose members were announced last week, will indeed influence the business of international policy-making in practice.

UN

The board, set up by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is to provide leaders with science-based advice on pressing environmental, developmental and socio-ethical issues. Its members are to identify knowledge gaps relevant to sustainable development and research needs that could be addressed by national or international efforts. In the UN’s own words, it “is the first such body… to influence and shape action by the international community to advance sustainable development and eradicate poverty”. Its creation follows a 2012 recommendation by the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability calling for a “major global scientific initiative to strengthen the interface between policy and science”.

The 26 members selected for the board include scientists from all continents, including five Africans scholars and three scholars from the Middle East, who will serve for two years, with the possibility of renewal for one further two-year term.

Eminent board members include Nobel laureates Ada Yonat from Israel, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and Egypt-born chemist Ahmed Zewail who in 1999 became the first Arab scientist to win a Nobel prize in science. Indian economist Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, is also on board.

US science is represented by Susan Avery, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and Shankar Sastry, dean of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. Microbiologist Jörg Hacker, president of the Leopoldina, Germany’s national academy of science, is also on the board, as is the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, physicist Vladimir Fortov. For China, Ke Gong, president of Nankai University in Tianjin, has been selected. British scientists are absent from the board.

The group plans to come together for its first working session in the beginning of 2014.

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