Science is the basis for moving ahead on global challenges

The International Science Council (ISC) is the world’s primary non-governmental organisation for the sciences, bringing together the natural and social science organisations, including both national academies and disciplinary bodies, with a singular focus.

The council’s role is to be the voice at the interface of the multilateral system and to promote its global voice for science, recognising science as a global public good.

The ISC was formed by a merger of the predecessor natural and social science umbrella organisations some four years ago. Its predecessor organisations had played valuable roles in the last Cold War in supporting track two diplomacy.

That included some notable achievements: its activities led eventually to the Antarctic Treaty, still the epitome of science diplomacy in international agreements, and it was a co-sponsor of the Villach Conference in 1985 in which scientists insisted that a multilateral intergovernmental response to global warming was needed, and which directly led some three years later to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The ISC supports many global activities, ranging from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research to the World Climate Research Programme.

Right from the start of the Ukraine conflict, the ISC faced a challenge: beyond condemning the invasion and the atrocities that followed, should we exclude Russian and Belarusian scientists from the community of science? Our initial response was clear – we were appalled by the events, but our obligation was to protect the global voice of science.

We undertook considerable consultation with our Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science and I had extensive informal discussions with other international science organisation leaders and science diplomats from Europe, North America, Asia and elsewhere, and we came to the view that as much as we condemned the invasion and the atrocities, it would be catastrophic in the longer term to split the global science community.

Just as in the first Cold War, science would again be a critical component of track two relationship rebuilding in the future. Importantly, no one can afford the risk that the sustainability agenda will be shattered by an even greater compromise of data sharing and scientific cooperation that could arise if the global science community becomes disconnected.

Perhaps this may be a somewhat naive and optimistic view about the role of science, but we all understand that the many challenges to the global commons require both new science and the proper application of available scientific knowledge.

The politicisation of science

Yet as much as we understand the critical role of science, paradoxically over the last decade science has become more challenged, more politicised in that acceptance of denial of scientific knowledge has become a badge of partisan affiliation in some places, and disinformation and manipulated knowledge is now central to much of the domestic and multilateral political space.

And the paradox goes further; war is at its heart not only a human conflict, it is also a technological competition. Science as the basis of technology is thus a factor that fuels conflict.

This inherent paradox about the place of science and technology in societal progress has been there since the dawn of our species. We have seen destructive as well as constructive uses of essentially every technology developed since the time of the first stone tool.

Current debates about hybrid threats and dual-use science highlight this perspective. But given that any technology can be misused, a core challenge for our species remains to define forms of governance and regulation that can ensure society uses science wisely. That challenge remains very acute and is something I focus on within my own work.

Science is a global language

Much of the developed world stands somewhat surprised that many countries have not been overtly critical of Russia. There are many different reasons for such positions, but one is the sense that Western responses demonstrate a patronising attitude: a conflict in Europe is perceived as being more significant than elsewhere. What about the many other conflicts in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central America?

This is worth reflecting on deeply, as too often much science is also placed in a similar light. Even when research extends into the Global South, it is often perceived as being conducted for the benefit of the Global North partner rather than for the Global South.

We have seen this perception magnified in the rise of the call to ‘decolonise science’, a phrasing which is subject to much politicising and misinterpretation, but which is nevertheless an indication that if science is to be a global good, it must be clearly available and performed by and with all societies.

Science is a global language not owned by any one culture or society, even if it is misused by some.

As the world enters a more fractured geopolitical framework, science must work hard to build and maintain the global framework rather than get caught in extreme nationalism. And it is hard: scientists are citizens of their countries and thus have obligations as citizens. But science must be the basis of moving ahead on the global challenges that affect us all. That is why the ISC continues to be inclusive rather than divisive.

The dilemma is that we would like science to be immune from these realpolitik issues, but it cannot be. Science has always had a political dimension and modern warfare itself reflects the misuse of science and technology for destructive rather than constructive purposes. So, we must accept that pragmatic approaches are needed.

A coordinated response

It is inherently obvious there have always been some boundaries to sharing of knowledge related to defence and security technologies. But with that clear understanding and proviso, scientific relationships have generally not been used as a political weapon.

But, increasingly, scientific relationships between countries such as the United States and China have started to come under political focus with even non-sensitive scientific relationships coming into question.

Broad and untargeted scientific sanctions of various forms have been applied by a variety of institutions and countries in response to the war in Ukraine. These are blunt tools which will hurt science over the long term, but it is not clear they have effects as sanctions.

We do not yet know how the Ukrainian future will unfold. I hope it will be in the form that represents the wishes of its citizens, but we are still at a point distant from that desired future.

It is still a period of intense conflict and one in which there are many displaced people – many displaced from their homes as refugees, but there are many others who remain in Ukraine but are displaced from their traditional roles as they have enlisted to fight.

So, we must address the needs of several distinct groups of Ukrainian scientists and students. There are those who are displaced but hope to return to a rebuilt Ukrainian science system soon. But how long will ‘soon’ be and at what point will some give up and become members of a second group: ex-Ukrainians wanting to rebuild their lives permanently elsewhere?

And thirdly there are those still in Ukraine trying to sustain in the less destroyed areas some semblance of continuing activity. Each of these groups needs different support and assistance and the ISC has funded a coordinator to work with Scholars at Risk, the UNHCR and others to assist joined up responses.

And I emphasise the need for coordination. Everyone wants to be seen to help, but it becomes less than helpful when multiple groups act in uncoordinated ways. I am appealing for a mechanism that can provide coordinated assistance to be both agreed to and followed through.

This should not be a time when groups try to take advantage through some form of virtue signalling. We need to get better at organised cooperation in emergencies.

Rebuilding science

Hopefully in that rebuilding phase there is an opportunity to create a raft of new international partnerships between Ukrainian scientists and those in many countries around the world to build that global network of knowledge that must be at the heart of what I will call track two multilateralism.

Just earlier this month a group of major academies together with the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences issued a 10-point plan addressing the most obvious assistance needs for displaced scientists from Ukraine, with assistance in rebuilding when that becomes possible.

The points made in that declaration show both compelling moral and common sense. But they highlight the difficulties – what can you do to help the student who is three years into a PhD and all her data or experimental support is lost? Does she have to start again?

What about the young fellow who has had his career interrupted for two years? Will he and others always be treated as second-rate scientists? What do we do with scientific data and reports on an 80% completed work which might never get completed? How can we record that effort and contribution while recognising that scientific integrity must be preserved?

What are the priorities for rebuilding a science system – do you just start again with the same institutions or is this a chance to make major shifts, taking ideas from some of the more successful countries? In tragedy, there is also opportunity and that requires reflection on the system that could be rebuilt for science and higher education, most likely more linked to Europe than previously.

Conflict and COVID-19

The devastation to the science and educational infrastructure in Ukraine is enormous, at least in the east and south of Ukraine. Some of these regions were also subject to COVID-19 lockdowns over the last two years, meaning that the disruption of education and research has not just been since February, but is piled on top of another two years of disruption.

And here may be a dimension that requires deep reflection. Mental health concerns are already rising rapidly for young people globally. Before COVID-19 occurred, it was already noted that rates of compromised youth mental health had doubled or more in the prior decade in many countries for complex reasons.

After the 18 months of continuous earthquakes, including three major ones roughly six months apart in the city of Christchurch in New Zealand, there was a doubling of mental health support needed and the needs remain much higher than baseline a decade later. Post-traumatic stress disorder will be common in high school students, in university students and beyond, and this will have implications for some years.

I mention that because recovery is often taken to mean physical recovery of institutions and infrastructure, but as I advised the New Zealand government in 2011, recovery is only complete when people feel they have agency and autonomy returned. In conflict that is even more complex than in natural disasters.

There are many ways science can be disrupted – by war, by pandemic, by natural disaster. Disruption can come in unexpected ways – supply line disruption for equipment or reagents, loss of infrastructure, loss of funding. But, as we face more likelihood of geostrategic instability, further pandemics and the refugee crises precipitated by climate change, we must start to think more systematically about how science, as a global activity, must be sustained.

It is an area needing deep reflection – the lessons of this tragic episode must not be seen as transient. Much of the biggest risk is in countries with already marginal scientific activity and the Global North must look now to its obligations to be more systematic in enhancing Global South capacities and partnerships.

Towards scientific resilience

Scientific collaboration and science across national borders have many positive attributes. But those collaborations need to be given much more emphasis by countries. They require investment and effort. Collaboration has a cost that funders often do not choose to recognise.

But it has benefits – it creates resilience. Where there is collaboration, students and fellows and scientists can find temporary homes. When they return that can bring equipment and reagents; they bring ideas and new colleagues and a fast rebuild is possible. Scientific collaboration across borders should be seen as a critical strategic need by all countries.

There is another reason I make this argument. The multilateral system is in a weakened state; clearly the enthusiasm of the post-1989 globalisation era has been replaced by an increasingly ugly nationalism. Nationalism interfered with the response to COVID-19, is slowing catastrophically our response to climate change and has allowed the current conflict in Ukraine to emerge.

Existential issues stare us in the face – climate change, water and food insecurity, the refugee crisis, pandemic recurrences, social unrest and loss of social cohesion and rising rates of loss of mental well-being, especially in young people: all of these seem almost inevitable.

The risks are obvious – there is an urgent need to think about the science that is needed. How do we do better at getting societies and policy-makers to respond to evidence-informed risk assessments?

Science has indirect diplomatic value through promoting understanding and the use of a common language through promoting collaboration, and scientific collaboration relies on trust. Trust takes time to build, which is why we must invest in scientific collaboration now.

But science also has a direct diplomatic value – in particular, it can support progression on the global commons issues, ensuring that knowledge is developed that can advance human social, economic and environmental goals.

Indeed, that is why the ISC, after two years of enquiry, established the Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability headed by Irina Bokova and Helen Clark, knowing that the current systems for funding and undertaking science are leaving large gaps and not serving all well.

But science must also deal with challenges in part created by the geopolitical environment and the rise of a post-globalised world. In such contexts the global scientific community cannot be passive. We are only eight years from 2030 and we’re a long way from the much more optimal vision of 2030 that we had in 2015 when the Sustainable Development Goals were set.

Track two multilateralism

We have to be honest; the formal multilateral track one diplomacy system is failing the world’s citizens in so many ways. It did poorly during the pandemic – it was the scientists who worked together across the boundaries of public and private science to make vaccines at unprecedented speed, while it remains apparent that the United Nations system and the World Health Organization processes were less than optimal because of geopolitics.

The formal system is doing poorly in ensuring progress on climate change as we continue on a path that means we will soon be in excess of the agreed 1.5 degrees Celsius ceiling. And it allowed the brutality of war to break out in Ukraine and many other conflicts to smoulder. The refugee crisis, famine and food insecurity were already high on the agenda before January this year.

I would argue we are entering an era where track two organisations, such as the ISC, must again take a greater role in ensuring a stronger global scaffold – what I call track two multilateralism.

It is an environment in which scientific cooperation becomes core to holding a shaky planet together and dampens the worst effects of rampant nationalism. It is a tall order, but the options are limited. We must not let this horrific episode pass as an isolated event; it is a symptom of a much greater challenge to the global commons.

As a scientific community we can either be passive or recognise that in finding ways to help Ukraine we must also generalise and find ways to ensure our planet’s and peoples’ futures.

Scientific cooperation and diplomacy have a critical part to play in ensuring our futures. The ISC will lift its own game so that it too is able to meet this obligation.

Sir Peter Gluckman is president of the International Science Council and served as inaugural chief science advisor to the New Zealand prime minister from 2009 to 2018. This is an edited version of his keynote speech on 15 June at a conference organised by the International Science Council in partnership with Science for Ukraine, All European Academies (ALLEA) and Kristiania University College, Norway. The conference brought together more than 200 stakeholders worldwide to discuss best practices and to develop recommendations for maintaining and extending in-country and international research collaborations. The ISC published the full speech on its site here.