World Science Conference closes proclaiming a grand alliance of science communities, decision-makers and civil society

July 02, 1999

Budapest, Hungary, July 1 - The World Conference on Science ended in Budapest today having set the premise for a global alliance linking science communities, political decision-makers and civil society to increase resources for scientific research; favour knowledge sharing with an emphasis on the need to bridge the North-South science and technology knowledge gap; and harness science and technology to work responsibly, with a clearer ethical vision, towards overcoming and preventing potentially disastrous societal problems.

The 6-day "World Conference on Science: Science for the 21st Century - a new commitment" offered a forum for debate about major science and related societal issues and produced two documents, a Declaration and a Framework for Action, platforms on which to shape the course of science, research and science-society relations in the new millennium.

A total of 1,800 science stakeholders from 155 countries - including 90 ministers and deputy ministers in charge of science and/or research - took part in the conference. National, regional and international non-governmental organisations involved in science attended, as did intergovernmental organisations, notably the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Participants at the Conference, which was divided into three Forums and 25 thematic meetings, agreed about some fundamental principles and priorities that should be observed in policy-making at all levels: the ethical implications of science; the need for knowledge sharing to be preserved despite industry's demand for secrecy; the need to maintain a balance between fundamental and applied research; to improve public perception of and involvement in science; to reinforce scientific teaching and research everywhere, particularly in the developing world; to abolish the barriers and stereotypes that limit women's ability to engage in science; and the need for science to serve the interests of sustainable development, peace and democracy.

A call for the difference between Western and Oriental scientific traditions to be understood better and differences harmonised was issued in a debate on the "Nature of Science" which focused on the history of science and took note of the general public's paradoxical attitude of utilitarianism and anxiety regarding scientific developments.

In a discussion on "The Universal Value of Science," speakers strongly defended the need for fundamental research findings to be considered as public goods available to all. They advocated "a balanced flux of brains between countries," arguing that the so-called "brain drain" phenomenon need not systematically be viewed negatively.

In a meeting on "Science in Response to Basic Human Needs," participants called for greater involvement of the scientific community in addressing health, food security, water, energy and shelter requirements, and highlighted the need for every country to define its own development agenda in terms of specific needs. A more theoretical debate on "The Scientific Approach to Complex Systems," highlighted the need to acquire the tools for predicting natural and man-made climate changes and develop numerical models for policy-making choices.

The "Science Across Borders" meeting stressed, notably, that the unrestricted mobility of scientists should be respected and advocated the creation of research network centres which, it said, can provide valuable critical mass of expertise. It also pointed out that the benefits of co-operation extend well beyond the purely scientific as they can favour international solidarity, understanding and peace.

The meeting on "Sharing Scientific Knowledge" noted that new trends providing stronger intellectual property protection are undermining the principle of full and open access to scientific data and called for national and international law to respect the need for a free flow of scientific information.

The deficit in science literacy was the focus of a meeting on "Science Education" which established the link between the public's lack of basic scientific understanding and its unwillingness to support the sciences. Participants called for a greater emphasis on all levels of science education, from pre-school on.

From a meeting on "Science and the Environment" it emerged that the gap between the natural sciences and social sciences as applied to environmental problems needs to be closed if environmental sciences are to become policy-relevant. This stemmed from the observation that environmental assessments can only serve as the basis for action if they contain a socio-economic component.

Other meetings focused on "The Biological Revolution and its Implications for Health," "Science, Agriculture and Food Security," "Science, Ethics and Responsibility" (which stressed the need to: strengthen ethics in science education; establish national bodies for ethics in science; set international guidelines for all sciences; adopt long-term policies; engage in an open dialogue with the general public). There were also meetings on "Science and Energy", "Science and New Materials." A meeting on "Traditional Knowledge" called on the World Intellectual Property Organization to develop a legal framework to protect traditional knowledge from appropriation by businesses, notably the pharmaceutical industry, and better recognize the scientific value of traditional knowledge systems.

A meeting of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) which included several science and education ministers, agreed on the need of bolstering science and technology in the Muslim world and called for the allocation of at least one percent of gross domestic product to that end.

Ministers and heads of national delegations, addressing a plenary session, insisted on the need to bolster funding and issued proposals for the creation of an international fund to promote research, co-operation and training for developing countries. Some countries also argued that debt relief measures could provide funding for science.

The priorities of the Conference participants were reflected in the closing ceremony which featured addresses by the heads of the main Conference organisers, UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor, and Werner Arber, President of the International Council for Science (ICSU), as well as the Chairman of the Conference, Hungarian Minister for Cultural Heritage Jozsef Hamori.

In his address Mr Mayor said: "We have to learn to practice democracy at a new level. A level where each party to the science-society relationship is a respected partner; where there is constant interaction between the natural and social sciences, where science communication becomes a process of two-way exchange between science and society, between science and the political authorities." He further pleaded for "a debate so intense, so creative, so ethically rigorous and so intellectually challenging that it comes to be seen as a social, political and [...] a scientific Renaissance."

Mr Mayor appealed on young people to realise that science can be "an outlet for their idealism, a vehicle for making ours a better world," but "first and foremost," he said, "the outcome of this Conference must impact directly on national politics." Turning to government officials present, he appealed on them to "put science on the political agenda and keep it there."

Mr Mayor struck an optimistic note as he spoke of the world's transition into the knowledge society: "For the first time ever, the key resource of humanity is not finite. We will never have to wage war over diminishing supplies of knowledge." But he warned that "knowledge is power and the temptation to control such a powerful resource will be greater than ever." He pointed out that today's communication technology offered the means "to share, disseminate and expand knowledge on a totally unprecedented scale," helping counter knowledge fragmentation.

Speaking of knowledge sharing, he emphasised the needs of less developed countries, "capacity building in the developing world must put emphasis on basic science more than on technology transfer, only this can put each country in charge of its applications of science and technology," he declared.

In his closing address, Mr Arber welcomed the Conference's contribution to gaining "recognition [for the fact that] science and its applications have cultural value and are relevant to the future development of our civilisations."

He spoke of the Conference's work to establish a "social contract" between science and society and pointed "to the mutual help and respect, the give-and-take" implied by the term. Mr Arber hoped "the Conference will help raise awareness of this contract" among scientists and society and that it "will pave the way into the future through a smooth process of evolution, [...] helping set the stage for what should be preserved and what should not be given priority," in scientific practices.

Mr Arber said he hoped the Conference will have helped the transition "towards peaceful and sustainable co-existence in harmony with the rest of humanity, the animate and inanimate world. We should use human intelligence to drive evolution in a responsible way," he declared.

The Conference was closed by Mr Hamori who declared that"the meeting we have just had was just a launching pad and our work will continue, hopefully in a better environment, involving many thousands of people and improving the lives of billions."


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