Sir Peter Gluckman: Incoming Presidential address – International Science Council

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

13 October 2021

Starting a new organisation is always hard. Starting a new organisation on the shoulders of two previous organisations with their own long histories provides further challenges. And ensuring rapid progress on expectations of our members to truly reach our mission for being the global voice for science, while at the same time building a new organisation, was compounded by the arrival of Covid-19. We have had to work in very different ways for the last 20 months – a mode that creates both challenges and opportunities. It is now 3 am in New Zealand, and perhaps that simple observation says it all about the challenges of managing a global organisation through the pandemic.

Yet, progress has been remarkable.

Those who took the initial steps that led to the merger three years ago between the two legacy organisations should be thanked by the entire science community for their insights and efforts. They created the strapline ‘the global voice for science’ which underpins our mission statement. More effectively operationalising that will determine how we set priorities and continue our evolution over the next three years.

Over its first three years an enormous amount has been achieved by the headquarters team, the board under the insightful leadership of Daya Reddy, its committees, working groups, regional offices and the many members and individuals who have contributed to what has been a remarkable but still incomplete transition.

An overwhelming vote of thanks must be given to Heide Hackmann and the headquarters team. What may not be so obvious to those not involved, was how complex and time consuming the merging of two organisations against legacy backgrounds and in the context of legal complexity has been. The constitution, which was written before the ISC was launched, created some practical difficulties. Other than the most obvious matters, we chose not to deal with these in the first mandate of the board but rather to leave these until the organisation matures further. I expect that we will return to the membership to discuss some of these issues in the coming year.

Oman was to host this General Assembly until Covid-19 struck. But the Governing Board had already seen the value of a mid-term policy-focused meeting, and following discussions with the Omani government and Royal Court of Oman, we have agreed to host an inaugural meeting with global policy leaders to discuss the science-policy interface on Jan 30 to Feb 3 2023. We see this as the start of a regular three-yearly mid-term meeting for the Council and hopefully by then we can meet face-to-face.

The global voice for science are the four key words of our mission statement. If it is to be a valid claim, we must address issues of membership. The membership is built on a heritage of national academies, international disciplinary bodies and social science associations, but the global landscape of science is now so much broader. There are disciplines that are not well represented, and indeed the bulk of the world’s science community – perhaps 10 million people – are not members of our member organisations. As we discussed on Monday this is an area of high priority to consider and revert.

Furthermore, even when individuals belong to our member organisations, I have been surprised by how little our work and activities are familiar to the science community. We need to collectively find a way to be fully inclusive, for it is only through that inclusivity that we can become a strong voice that will be heard. If you wish the ISC to be successful in its mission, we must have your commitment to be much more proactive in reaching through to your members and beyond, so all the scientific community understands what the ISC is doing on their behalf. This lack of awareness is currently our biggest weakness.

I come to the ISC as a medical scientist whose recent years have been largely spent in a career at the interface between science and policy, and science and diplomacy. What that experience has taught me is that a voice is meaningless unless there is a person or institution that wants to hear it. That is not necessarily always the case. We need to build our listeners. This means if we want to be a global voice we must put effort into our relationships with the multilateral system: the UN agencies, OECD, WEF, and so forth. In that regard, I thank Julia Marton-Lefèvre and her working group for an outstanding but challenging report, to be presented tomorrow, on what the ISC needs to do to be more effective in the multilateral system.

To progress that agenda will require resources and attention that the current profile and funding cannot provide. Some rebalancing will be needed in our priorities while we look for ways to expand our reach and capacities through the donor community. This itself needs effort. But our membership is another resource, and we must reach out to you, not just to involve you in initiatives or to disseminate our activities but also to engage you in the critical task of building relationships.

Never has it been so urgent and critical that the voice for science speaks and that it is heard. The positioning of science has been affected in many societies over the last few years; it has been politicised in some places, we have seen a massive increase in active disinformation, and multilateralism has been fractured.

Yet it was a global effort by science, both public and private, that brought us the Covid-19 vaccines at an unprecedented rate. Unfortunately, the multilateral system has not fully seized the opportunity such cooperation created, and sadly vaccine coverage remains poor and unequal with tragic consequences.  Our Covid-19 Scenarios Project is intended to provide policymakers with a toolkit to hopefully make better choices over the years ahead as the pandemic rolls on. The long term social, economic, societal and strategic implications cannot be ignored. It leaves permanent fingerprints on the way science operates. It provides critical lessons on how science must input into policy, how science diplomacy must evolve and how we must address future existential risks.

We all understand that science must be a truly global and inclusive endeavour to address issues of the global commons: pandemics, climate change, social inclusion and equity, food water and energy security, urbanisation, human development, geostrategic fractionation, rapid technological change and much more. At the same time, each country has to put these and other challenges into local and specific context.

And central to this is strengthening the relationships between science and policy making, embedding science more deeply in society, and promoting progressive change in how the science system evolves alongside the changing position of science and expectations in society. ISC will work with its affiliate INGSA and all our members and partners to make an even greater effort in building understandings and capacities at these interfaces.

We should be proud of the start we have already made. We are deeply embedded with the revision of human development by UNDP and on disaster risk reduction with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. We have worked closely with UNESCO on the issues of open science and our work on the publishing project has been very well received. I would call attention to the recently released position paper Science as a Global Public Good. I would hope that is distributed to all your members and more broadly. I particularly acknowledge the leadership of Geoffrey Boulton in leading these two essential projects.

We have a broad range of engagements on the sustainability challenges. In this regard I would highlight the report Unleashing Science: Delivering Missions for Sustainability and the related discussions we have led through the Global Forum of Funders and the Global Research Council. The next steps heralded in that report have commenced. We are in the process of establishing a Commission chaired by two distinguished global states persons, former Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova, and former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of UNDP Helen Clark. The Commission will include our patron Ismail Serageldin, distinguished scientists including Johan Rockström and Albert van Jaarsveld, philanthropists, statespersons, funders and sustainability strategists. The brief of the Commission is to explore how to implement, organise and fund global science missions for sustainability.  We hope to announce the full membership within a few weeks. They have been asked to report to the Global Knowledge Dialogue that ISC will host in Oman in early 2023.

And just today the ISC accepted an invitation from World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction to be a partner in the establishment of the Centre of Excellence for Climate and Disaster Resilience.

The nature of science is changing; there remains much to do with respect to inclusivity and diversity, and there are areas of scientific activity that merit deep reflection. For example, although the emergence of transdisciplinary science is seen as critical to many so-called wicked problems, how can transdisciplinary science be fairly evaluated, funded, and assessed? How do we exploit our increasingly pluralistic capabilities and embrace all the robust knowledge disciplines from the natural, social, data, and technology sciences and the humanities? As we reach globally how does science interact with other knowledge systems?

The need is vast, and the gaps and opportunities are rather obvious. But on the current financial base and with a rather constrained membership we cannot fully address our mission without philanthropic support. These are the immediate challenges we face.

I want to congratulate the new Board who was elected today; we have a busy, important and exciting three years ahead of us. But I also want to thank those who put their names forward but were not elected. You will be at the front of the queue as we seek help on the many tasks ahead of us.

Collectively, all of us – the newly elected Board, our headquarters staff, our committees, our regional focal points, our members, and associate members – have a critical job to do as we work together to ensure that by giving science a global voice, we can advance the interests of all the planet’s citizens while protecting the planet itself. We may not be able do everything we want to do in three years, but with a truly cooperative approach we can make a significant dent in the issues ahead of us.

See also: Media release (International Science Council): Sir Peter Gluckman, paediatrician, biomedical scientist and science-policy expert becomes President of the International Science Council

Our themes