Global science technology and innovation cooperation post-COVID-19

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up of two businesspeople shaking hands outdoors in a city, during the day.

United Nations Science Technology and Innovation Digital Conference
Contributions to the panel on Restructuring of Global Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Cooperation Post-COVID-19
15 May 2020

Sir Peter Gluckman
Chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice
President-Elect of International Science Council

Given that Covid-19 has changed the speed at which we need to think and act, I will pose some difficult questions and make some generalisations to push our thinking beyond business as usual.

Covid-19 has exposed the complex interface between science, policy and politics, and not all is well. The properties of interface are the subject of a major 100-country project INGSA has underway to explore why its effectiveness has varied so much in the pandemic.  If science is to work best for global good, issues across the critical domains of the international science-policy interface need to be addressed.

Natural and social sciences and technology are central to many questions on the international agenda especially related to sustainability. However, structures at the UN, across agencies and indeed within many member states are not well equipped for science to have effective input.

Science itself has to change. It is inefficient. Do we really need 3 million papers a year, many of which are never read? Individual and institutional incentives set by governments, funders, agencies and universities drive this inefficient and increasingly misdirected culture, which is reinforced by the inherent drive many scientists have to build their symbolic capital.

The same inefficiencies exist in international science. Duplicative activities are often driven by agency and institutional egos; there are replicative conferences and duplicative organisations. Funding organisations too often duplicate rather than coordinate and set their focus, without asking how they fit overall strategies. The International Science Council has been trying to help address this latter issue of promoting funder collaboration and coordination, as this is fundamental to accelerating progress.

Fragmentation also affects how science and policy come together to address global challenges. Discussions have tended to focus on road maps for the SDGs that treat each SDG as a separate activity with separate solutions. They are not independent of each other and are all related and coupled, complex and open systems. There are hints of change — the discussion in last year’s Global Sustainability Development Report of focusing on 6 interrelated transformations is a step in the right direction.  But now we have different groups proposing different transformation agendas. So much of this is wasteful.

There has been little consideration about how science can help policy makers identify priorities in this very complex landscape, yet studies of domestic science policy interactions suggest that this is the most important step. INGSA has taken the lead working with a number of partners to develop approaches to addressing this gap. But the importance of this step, which is key to good policy making, is largely ignored.

The UNDP has started an important project with the ISC that is convening a broad range of disciplinary inputs to move human development from a narrow to a much more holistic understanding of human potential and well-being. I applaud this willingness to set a common agenda rather than policy alone setting the agenda.

Evidentiary brokerage is key. It has two elements: first is evidentiary synthesis, which is a complex skill. We have learnt with Covid-19 that the range of disciplines needed in the room is broad. It is not necessarily the academician deeply vested in reductionist science that is needed; it is those trans-disciplinarians with the skills to listen to other disciplines and epistemologies. The second element is that it needs skills to integrate those inputs into advice. No single science has the answer. Brokerage needs humility and diplomacy. It needs to be sure the questions and answers are aligned. It must be open about uncertainty and the limits of science.

But as we have seen, too often scientists have no formal process to interact in ways that are most helpful. Institutions of scientific advice are needed.

Three years ago I spoke at this forum about the lack of effective scientific input into functions of the UN system beyond specific technical questions. Science is largely delegated to UNESCO, where it focuses primarily on member state capacities and technical agencies rather than being engaged in the corridors of policy and diplomacy. The major group system tries its best, but its abilities and access are limited.

Three years ago I thought the answer might be a true science advisory mechanism reporting to the UNSG, not the unfunded and rather cosmetic mechanism previously established. A small unit in NY is essential but I would suggest that the source of ensuring balanced evidentiary synthesis must come from the diversity of the global science community, not just a few favoured friends. The reality is that the UN needs structured access to the best experts across the globe.

The science community needs to unite into a single global voice for science to coordinate and serve in that evidentiary synthetic and brokerage role. Otherwise, we end up making policy makers into scientific referees.

But this cannot be effective unless the UN promotes all countries, irrespective of developmental state, having an institutional framework to ensure scientific input not just into domestic policy but also into diplomacy – something again recommended by the 2017 STI forum.

The three keys to our future – sustainability, social resilience and human development – are all encapsulated in the SDGs. None are possible without better incorporation of science into international affairs. But not just as implementers, which has been the focus of most activity, but into the actual identification of those key policy actions that would make a difference.

Let me finish with a simple question. Where were the broader dimensions of science in the preparation of the international pandemic plan — one that never considered human, diplomatic and other dimensions? Social science, risk science, behavioural science amongst others were largely missing in action. At what price?

Our themes