How could we reinforce science and research in the UN?

By Dr. William Burns PhD MSc

Summary

  • The UN system (almost 40 identifiable organizations) probably harbors one of the largest and most prominent science and research capacities of any multilateral organization – annual spending possibly as high as hundreds of millions of US$.
  • Application-oriented science and research in social sciences is notable in the UN, although there would also appear to be significant concentrations of experts in medicine, environmental sciences, agriculture and nuclear engineering/physics.
  • In common with many other activities of the UN system, science is not seen as a unified or cross-cutting functionality. There is no overall budget line or integrated strategy. Instead we see autonomous activity in different agencies. Funding is mainly allocated by donors on a project basis.
  • One big issue is the geographical distribution of scientific capacity within the UN which seems to be mainly in Europe. It would be good to see capacity established more widely. Funds/political commitment from member states would be needed to bring about this change.

Introduction

The UN System is a network of almost 40 multilateral entities (termed funds and programs, specialized agencies, and so on). These entities seem to blend at the edges with other types of multilateral agency such as development banks. They are not centrally coordinated.

Evidently, the UN system has complicated functions; science and research is one of them (which also has applications in many areas).(1) Public visibility of science is slightly obscured by the fact that it is not seen as a distinct cross-cutting activity in the UN. Instead, it is organized separately in each agency and program.

Science also tends to be evaluated by policy communities relevant only to the agency concerned; indeed, I know of only a handful of people who are interested in how science and research is structured in the UN system as a whole.(2)

My goal in this report was therefore to take stock of how science is conceived across the UN, with a view to understanding how it might be better supported in future.

I spent time looking at relevant organograms, reports and strategy documents of most of the agencies in the UN system (as well as academic and other writing about science and research in the UN).

I also spoke to a handful of UN staff involved in scientific work as well as the research departments of major development banks (the latter offers perspective from a large social science research enterprise in a multilateral setting).

I was interested in their objects of study and methods and how they saw science and research relating to wider goals. Evidently, they had already put a lot of thought into these questions that we can learn from.

A single UN agency, WHO, has been uniquely prominent due to the pandemic with its senior scientific experts becoming better known. This raises points which I think are also worth briefly talking about even though it is difficult to draw solid conclusions (see penultimate section beneath).

Perspectives from the system

Over the last two years I spoke with a small number of people from within the UN system (or other multilateral entities) at what the UN would call ‘duty stations’ in Geneva, Nairobi and Washington, D.C., among other locations.

The first conversation I had, in July 2020, was with Dr. Petru Dumitriu, at that time Inspector, UN Joint Inspection Unit (UN JIU). In 2018 his team had, uniquely, published a detailed report on policy-relevant research across the entire UN system. There is certainly no one else who studied it in such a systematic way (at least that we heard about).(3)

UNJIU is an oversight body within the UN system that evaluates cross-cutting issues and seeks to improve performance. I will not try to summarize their report (or the response to it) other than to observe it has got to be important reading for anyone interested in science and research in the UN.

The report was intended ‘to acknowledge the role of research as a unique asset of the United Nations system, elevate its visibility and find ways to make its production and uptake more efficient and transparent.’(4)

“The UN is fundamentally a center for knowledge, although this gets lost due to a philosophy based on projects,” Dr. Dumitriu told me.

“We found that in the UN Secretariat, different approaches to knowledge and information were taken in the Department of Peacekeeping, say, than other departments. Across the entire UN system approaches were even more diverse. It was hard work to break silos and make interdisciplinary connections.”

“The UNU [United Nations University], although initially created with a system-wide vision, was mainly concerned with ensuring its own survival and proving its worth. Hence the system-wide role had been lost due to a lack of adequate resources. The UNU should not be blamed for this. It is outside their control,” Dr. Dumitriu said.

“Possibly an IT system could be built to gather all the scientific information across the UN together. It would not be expensive as it would only require someone who curates the resources and identifies well-tested sources of expertise. But it had not been done when we looked. I am hopeful that an open access policy and global data platform would be built in future.”

“The outsourcing of expertise to consultants is commonplace which means UN officials are project managers more than anything else,” he said. “I believe more links with universities should be made. The UN could outsource advisory services to academics, rather than consultants. This would also benefit universities connecting them more closely to policy discussion on global issues.”

“Two of the recommendations of my report were apparently received with some reluctance by some organizations, namely: the proposals to estimate research costs in each agency; and to produce synoptic briefings to raise the profile of research among diplomats at the UN,” he added (citing also the UN response to the report posted on the UNJIU website for those who want more details).

“The reasons given for not implementing a system to estimate research costs included the cost of changing the IT system and the fact budgets were too low to make changes genuinely worthwhile.”

“As a former diplomat myself I can understand that diplomats would not have time to read through reports,” he added in reference to the second proposal.

In February 2022, I exchanged emails with Dr. Clovis Freire, Economist, Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Section, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

UNCTAD is part of the UN Secretariat but is based in Geneva. The goal of the agency is to offer technical assistance to developing countries in a number of economic areas.

It also serves as the secretariat of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), which Dr. Freire informed me “offers an impartial and trusted platform where the international community can deliberate contentious issues and share experiences and lessons learned on different policy approaches”.

“UNCTAD seeks to strengthen the science-policy interface in the area of STI [science technology and innovation] for the SDGs,” he added.

“We are currently working on the next Technology and Innovation Report (TIR).(5) As previewed, it will argue that we live in a time of rapid technological change, at the height of the digital transformation and the early stages of the Industry 4.0 revolution.”

“The specific focus of the report will be on (1) production of green technologies such as green hydrogen; (2) application of frontier technologies such as AI to greener global value chains; and (3) diversification of economies towards sectors with lower carbon footprints.”

“The biggest challenge for us is an analytical framework and empirical case studies to support the identification of green ‘windows of opportunity’ in developing countries, and propose policy recommendations for countries to take advantage of these opportunities.”

“Other issues we want to address include ways of measuring the emission intensity and emission per capita footprint of different sectors and to identify opportunities for each country’s diversification towards sectors with lower carbon footprint.”

“We are also conducting a firm-level survey on the deployment of frontier technologies in developing countries. The survey has been applied in 500 firms in Ghana and we are working with partners to complete the survey in other 500 firms in South Africa and 500 in Tunisia. We are also preparing studies on innovation and entrepreneurship in Angola, and a science, technology and innovation policy review in Botswana,” he added.

“The recent UNCTAD Ministerial Conference, UNCTAD15, held in 2021, recommended member states rethink development solutions and build new solidarity, especially in science and technology.”

“I hope the scientific community will support the creation of mechanisms for engaging with the UN System through joint research projects and publications, meetings, etc., so as to get to know more about the policy areas that require support,” he said.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), based in Nairobi, is ‘the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda…and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment’.(6)

I spoke by phone with Dr. Andrea Hinwood, Chief Scientist, UNEP, who has been in-post for just over one year with a big remit across the environmental sciences.

“We are not a research institute that develops hypotheses like in a university but we keep the environmental and related sciences under constant review,” she said.

“There are obviously gaps in the science and we would encourage the research community to deploy funds to address those gaps.”

“I think having more open and accessible data, information and knowledge is going to be crucial across the board to help the UN and member states with decision making but also to look for signals of change and improvements across an array of issues as we implement our improvement plans.”

“Scientific disciplines will continue to be important but we also need more integrated science in areas such as pollution,  biodiversity impacts and of climate change. There is a big value-add here as they are interrelated and each pillar affects the other and can be reinforcing.”

“UNEP has a big role in convening people and bringing that evidence together,” she added.

I also heard from two individuals who have detailed knowledge of research in the UN system but who I quote without attribution (the following comments are based on my notes of those conversations).

“We are thinking much more about our communications these days. How can we get more people to read our research? We are trying not to be too, I would say, ‘UN-focused’ in our writing so that people outside the UN find our work understandable,” the first individual said.

“To us the UN is the most important source of information but perhaps some do not recognize it. The challenge is producing quality, authoritative information. There is no shortage of data. The UN must stand out as a source of true facts.”

“Twenty years ago I would say we had a monopoly on global information. But we have had to change our business model. The UN has lost a bit of ground.”

“Everyone realized that data is power. More visibility means more political interest. Each member state sees the UN in a different way. But I believe member states must have the political will to maintain the common good, as we would call it, of research and evidence that is reliable and can be trusted.”

“Academic researchers can help us. But it could be that university career evaluation does not always incentivise academics to work with us as much as we would like, although of course some academics are very generous with their time.”

“Joint research with universities would be good but the challenge is funding. Donors fund what they want to research, for example on a particular country, not necessarily topics that could be important at a larger scale,” the first individual said.

“To work effectively, we negotiate various factors which include academic independence, policy needs of the UN, and views of donors who fund research projects,” the second individual said.

“Representatives from UN agencies meet the UN Secretary General twice a year. This is a useful means of ‘assessing the temperature of the room’ in terms of what might be upcoming priorities. There is also a cross UN group called the High Level Committee on Programs that is styled as the think tank as well as the UN Innovation Network that we use to inform our thinking.”

“We tend to draw information from established networks of universities and think-tanks in member states, as well as our own research.”

“We are also mandated to link expertise from developed and developing contexts. Yet we received push-back from some quarters for doing it,” the second individual added.

Perspectives from research departments in international development banks

International development banks are not part of the UN system. But they are multilateral organizations that harbor quite large research departments.

If we (hypothetically) combined them all, I believe we are talking about a global research enterprise of more than 100 people, mainly economists. This is quite a large corps of experts by the standards of social science (and in many public research systems and private firms, by the standards of even the natural sciences).

I spoke with leading researchers from two Washington, D.C., institutions, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB); and the World Bank, to gain their perspectives on how they plan and undertake research.

Dr. Alejandro Izquierdo, Principal Research Technical Leader, IDB, informed me he spent 20 years working at the bank, mainly in the research department, of which he is now deputy director (but with a three year period in operations).

The research department is composed of 21 economists but research is not privative of the research department, significant research is also being carried out in the sectoral [operational] departments of the bank.

“In the past, we did not always have counterparts in the sectoral departments who did research but now we have them. We can discuss our findings together and feed back with one another. I think this is one of the areas that has improved in big strides since I started. You need this ‘nexus’ so the research department is not isolated, and so that research is translated into policy and has an impact on operations.”

Dr. Izquierdo said that economics is the common language of his department but, within that field, disciplines are varied, ranging from macroeconomics, fiscal policy, and banking, to social topics including education, labor markets, poverty, as well as areas such as climate change and political economy.

“In terms of instruments, econometrics is our cup of tea. But we deploy other methods, such as dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models as needed, depending on the policy questions at hand .”

“The bank has started to move in the direction of using more machine learning and AI, But there is still a lot of potential. For example, at our Research Department, we found it is very useful for clients to have a consolidated database of key macroeconomic variables across the region. We are currently working on a system that will scrape the central bank and ministries of finance databases and gather that data automatically.”

“We get ideas for research in many different ways. We take the pulse of the region through candid discussions we have biannually with chief economists, ministers of finance, and central bank presidents, asking them ‘what keeps them up at night’” 

“But many times we work in the opposite direction, bringing up new topics and ideas to policymakers that were initially not in their radar. For this, we need substantial freedom (which we have)  in choosing topics; that is very important and really helps because a small issue can become a big one and we need the ability to anticipate.”

Dr. Izquierdo noted the recent report on trust as an example of work that had emerged this way.(7) Another example is a report on technical and allocation inefficiencies in public spending in Latin America, which was available well before the need for consolidation following the COVID-19 crisis. These are two cases of Flagship reports that were instrumental in setting up debates with policymakers.

Frequent meetings to assess macroeconomic conditions in borrowing member countries carried out by the Macroeconomic Working Group, where country economists submit reports which the bank then reviews, are also a source of inspiration for topics that need coverage in the region.  

“We also interact substantially with the academic community. We exchange ideas with universities, think-tanks and multilateral organizations through presentations of our research, and we also invite researchers from these institutions to present their work to us.  This interaction works as a relevant source of exchange of ideas.”

“Moreover, we also work on interactions between academics and policymakers. For example, we produce joint courses with Columbia University [New York] for  mid-career training of policymakers on issues such as dealing with international financial crises, as well as fiscal, monetary and banking challenges in Emerging Markets. It is a great interaction that has been very well received by policymakers across the world.”(8)

“Publishing in academic journals is one of our main goals, and our department is quite successful at that, although sometimes it can be more difficult for multilaterals. Our focus is on policy issues, something that is valued at varying degrees, depending on journal orientation. The ideal for us is to produce high quality research that is valuable to policymakers, that’s our guiding principle.”

“What can we do to emerge from the pandemic crisis with a better model for inclusive and sustainable growth?” Dr. Izquierdo said in response to my question that this is the  biggest challenge at the moment.

“Debt levels have increased in the region [Latin America and Caribbean]. Before, on average, debt was 58% of GDP. Now it is 72%, and fiscal sustainability may be at risk. Moreover, Latin America already had considerable social turmoil before the pandemic. Under these circumstances, we can’t go back to the mediocre growth, around 0.1%, we saw back in 2019. We need to find the bottlenecks to growth, and make sure we can design programs that reorient policy towards pro-inclusive growth spending. In my view, research is a vital part of that process,” he said.

Dr. Filmer leads a team of about 100 people dedicated to research. “We have about 70 PhD [qualified] economists. The remainder are PhD students, consultants and communications staff. I should add that we are not supervising PhD students like a university department; they are doing secondments with us.”

“We are virtually all economists, with just one non-economist on the team right now,” he said.

“We work across a range of development issues. We have teams working on poverty and 
equality, trade competitiveness, infrastructure and environment, and so on.”

“We are not a ‘directed’ research department. Our researchers identify their own topics based on international development work as well as reading the academic literature.”

“About ⅓ of research staff time is spent on what we call ‘cross-support’, which means working directly with other units of the bank. This could mean direct contributions to operational work,  helping put together analytical work in support of operations, or other types of engagements. This gives World Bank researchers insights into the actual issues that arise in promoting development.”

“In terms of communicating our work, we try to use all the communications methods available like publications and blogs. At the same time, we push for having our research findings used in documents and reports that our operational colleagues are writing.”

“We are mostly empirical or applied and not quite as theoretical in our research approaches as a university department might be. We have a strong evaluation component to our work using a  range of methods. Our analysis is mostly quantitative, although some researchers do use qualitative methods. We also disseminate a lot of data.”

“We generally use the methods that are most appropriate for the task at hand. We do not do any ex-ante validation of methods—researchers are motivated to apply the most recent methodological developments in their work.

“More broadly, we try to shape our research agenda looking at the topics that are going to be important for development. For example, at the moment we are building up the group of researchers with expertise on climate change.”

“Another important big question right now is how the world economy is going to recover as the pandemic hopefully recedes. We’re asking ourselves what research questions arise from this challenge and how are we going to design good policies?”(9)

“The UN system is in a good position to provide global public goods such as research.”

Dr. Filmer drew attention to the Knowledge for Change Program (KCP), a fund from which World Bank staff can bid for research grants aligned with thematic priorities such as climate change. KCP has disbursed US$ 72m since its inception in 2002, citing the KCP website.

“In my view, outside of, say, India and Kenya, as examples, there is a very limited amount of research on many developing countries. These developing countries are in many ways like ‘research orphans’. It is often hard to get research on these countries published in academic journals. At the World Bank we can focus on these countries and play a role in addressing this gap.”

Business models

‘The policy research landscape of United Nations system entities is extremely diverse. The review shows considerable variations in the way organizations comprehend and operationalize research activities. This heterogeneity – inherent to organizations with different internal capacities and resources – is compounded by programmatic/operational requirements that vary markedly, with some organizations being heavily research-based and oriented towards capacity-building, while others fulfil operational functions.’ – Dumitriu, et al., UN Joint Inspection Unit, JIU/REP/2018/7.

What observations can we make about the business model for science and research across the UN? The short answer is that there is no single business model but a range of ways that it gets sustained within the UN. I will break the question down into four parts, namely, why the UN engages in science, and how it pays for, organizes, and does it (the latter referring to approaches and methods).(10)

In answer to the first part, science and evidence seems often framed in the UN as a support for policy intervention.(11) To a much lesser extent (I would say), science is configured as part of what is termed science diplomacy.(12)

While of course science would often be part of activities in these ways, it probably has other purposes in the UN we should note.

These include prestige of donors (who fund scientific activities); notions of training, capacity building or demonstrating good practice; ideals of international collaboration/expanding human knowledge; as part of the personal career trajectory of officials; or, indeed, simply a consequence of historical contingency.

The challenge of day-to-day scientific work seems, in part, to be about harnessing these varied aspects. Clearly, different kinds of solutions have been developed over the years. We are very far from understanding what those solutions are across the entire system but could probably cite case studies.

The second part concerns funding. At a basic level, it is unclear how much the UN spends on science and research. The UNJIU report (which of course concerns solely research) does not give any details due to the fact that only three of the 28 agencies the authors examined kept such financial records. To my knowledge, there is no intention within the UN system to collate this information in future.

My (pure) guess is that the UN would spend US$ hundreds of millions annually on science and research.(13) Could be less but I doubt it is more. This is quite a large sum for an intergovernmental organization but obviously nothing like the science and research budget of the EU (as well as being markedly less than multilateral science programs such as CERN or the European Space Agency).(14)

Funds might come primarily from development/foreign ministries and philanthropic foundations (this is, however, a guess). Funding priorities from other government ministries such as environmental, health, or research can be different and speak to different constituencies than those from development/foreign ministries, but they could also play a role.(15) I have no information as to whether UN agencies accept funds from private firms to deliver research projects (contract research). The UN cannot raise duties or taxes to fund its activities.

It would seem that donor governments (and philanthropic donors) often commission different bits of science and research from the UN according to their own goals. The balance between what might be termed core or regular budget for science and extra-budgetary or project-based contributions is impossible to know.

We know that agencies such as UNU receive no regular budget thereby placing them in a precarious position where units must fight just for basic financial survival. Unlike universities in many nation states, there is no guaranteed cash flow for UNU from a government funding agency/education ministry and/or student fees.

Limited or intermittent funding is therefore a structural reality for a lot of science in the UN. It can lead to allocation of resources almost by luck rather than strategic design. But donor governments are obviously also willing to make at least some longer-term or more strategic investments. We could, therefore, ask what conditions led to such decisions. Regrettably it is difficult to answer this question due to lack of information.(16)

Turning now to my third point on structures the UN uses to organize science and research. These are relatively easy to identify and cover all the obvious bureaucratic possibilities. Science and research is evidently a very prominent feature of UN bureaucracies (see table beneath).

Bureaucratic instruments for science and research in the UN (examples)*

Bureaucratic instrumentWhere used
Branch, department, division or sectionDESA, ILO, IOM, UNCTAD, UNEP, UNIDO, UNICEF, UNITAR, UNODC, UN Women, UNHCR, World Bank, IFAD, UNDP, WHO
Subsidiary organizationIMO, UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO(17)
Separate agencyCTBTO, IAEA, UNU(18), UNIDIR, UNRISD, UNICRI, UNFCCC, IPCC
Chief scientistFAO, UNEP, WHO, WMO
Scientific advisory board or committeeOPCW, IAEA, IPCC(19)
Collaborating center, network or partnershipWHO, UNEP, UNDP, WTO, UNFPA, OPCW, IAEA(20)
Laboratory (scientific equipment)IAEA, FAO, WHO(21)
Accelerator or innovation lab(22)ITC, WFP, UNDP
Data platform (website)UNEP(23)
Science strategy documentUNRISD, UNEP
No obvious instrument(24)UNRWA(25), WIPO, UPU, UNWTO, ICAO(26)
* Based on examination of UN system websites looking for structures, staff positions and strategy documents explicitly labelled science, research, analysis, etc. I believe this gives an idea as to the legibility of science and research in the UN system. Please note this is a certainly an incomplete record and might contain significant inaccuracies; therefore please do not rely on it.

There is probably a reliance on consultants to fulfil scientific capacity. There is no way I know of measuring this phenomenon across the UN; data from UNU suggests consultants significantly outnumber permanent scientific staff in UNU.(27)

In rare cases, the UN system operates its own permanent scientific laboratories, with the IAEA facility at Seibersdorf (Austria) and Monaco being particularly noticeable (the former site includes a joint center with the FAO).

But to my knowledge the UN system does not have any multi-purpose science and research instrument equivalent to the European Union Joint Research Centre (although, indeed, one could say the EU facility once had a superficial similarity to the IAEA facility at Seibersdorf as it started as a nuclear lab, only later branching into other topics).

Although often focused on addressing low and middle income countries, it has been noted that the institutional bases for science in the UN system are mainly located in Europe.(28) Inequitable geographical distribution of scientific resources is obviously a big issue that needs to be fixed.

Now, my final point, concerning approaches and methods. An understanding of this topic would mean reading across a range of disciplines including the very large literature that engages critically with UN and international development doctrines. I certainly do not have the time to do this (and I am not convinced anyone would do it because the gain is not obvious).

My comments will therefore be superficial. I base them mainly on reading statements about approaches and methods which are occasionally found in institutional strategy documents and on websites of UN agencies.

The subject material of many of the agencies tends to suggest an expert enterprise dominated by social sciences such as economics and law. We would therefore assume a focus on methods such as survey, interview and various types of quantitative and qualitative analysis (probably with emphasis on quantitative methods and statistics).

Obviously there are also big agencies concerned with agricultural, medical and environmental matters as well as nuclear physics/engineering. In these you might expect to see dominance of approaches and methods found in the natural sciences.(29)

UN officials often review scientific information generated by others which raises obvious questions about how they evaluate or give credence to particular kinds of information (not questions I have had time to address but a theme that has been explored by academics).

Overall, there would be no codified body of scientific know-how or defined school of thought across the UN system. There is certainly no obvious structural organization of science as a system-wide endeavour and no defined corps of scientific officials (as, for example, found in some national civil services).(30)

Thus, what counts as a valid approach or method probably varies depending on who you speak with. Rather than looking laterally across their organisation, scientists and other kinds of UN experts might identify with disciplinary norms found outside the UN, as well as engaging with approaches discussed by the scientific, business, and policy communities specific to their job role or topic.

However there could also be distinct features of science in the UN that deserve recognition even if these sometimes develop in ad hoc ways or due to some shared ethos among international public servants such as a belief in international cooperation.

It seems, unsurprisingly, we are observing an intricate mechanism; complex language is therefore needed to describe how science is conceived, funded, organised, etc. in the UN.

Intellectual dimensions of science and research in the UN*

DimensionExplanation
AcademicAcademic rigour, independence, impartiality, peer review, cross-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary and systemic approaches, mixed methods, etc.(31)
BureaucraticSustainable development goals (SDGs) and evidence-based (or evidence-informed) policy as ways of thinking about scientific activities and their relationships to wider processes.
BusinessReference to concepts that have particular salience in the corporate world such as data and analytics, innovation, digital transformation, strategic foresight, behavioural science, industry 4.0, etc.(32)
MoralThe scientific investigator as advocate or conscience; accordingly, justice and social equity as key frameworks (ideas about markets also appear in the intellectual foreground of some agencies). Personal integrity of investigators as an important progenitor of reliable information.
PolicyCo-construction; policy relevance(33)
* The table is simply an attempt to summarize my own reading of information and documents posted on UN websites. The implication is that, to be considered intellectually salient, science in the UN might touch upon some or all of these domains. Not to be taken too seriously.

WHO experience during the pandemic

How has WHO mobilized science and evidence during the pandemic? What implications, if any, are there for the UN system in general?

In considering these questions, I am obviously not in a position to analyse the WHO response. As an ordinary member of the public, I have no information concerning internal deliberations. 

Furthermore, the Independent Oversight Advisory Committee (WHO oversight body) has not to my knowledge published an account beyond the first few months of the pandemic.

Accepting these limitations, let me simply highlight four points made by the IOAC that seemed suggestive, noting solutions to all of them probably lie at the door of member states not of the WHO bureaucracy.(34)

  • ‘Nominated focal points in governments’ might not be able to ‘adequately raise the alarm to ministers within their governments when a PHEIC [health emergency] is declared’ (p. 5).
  • Is the WHO ‘adequately resourced and staffed’ to ‘produce and communicate sound scientific guidance’ and ‘develop recommendations for the multiple economic and social consequences of the public health measures’ (p. 7)?(35)
  • The WHO should ‘make more robust use of WHO collaborating centres around the world, expert networks, such as technical advisory bodies, and public health institutes’. (p. 9).
  • ‘WHO’s external communications have progressively improved throughout the COVID-19 pandemic…[but there has been a] high level of toxicity and incivility on social media against WHO staff’.(36)

The first bullet point implies that officials could find themselves only in regular contact with technical or scientific departments in national governments. Depending on the government, these might be relatively marginal in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Evidently, relationship formation along these lines could impede information exchange particularly in the case of emergencies. It is impossible to know if this is the case given we lack data on the topic in general. But certainly some governments did not take WHO as seriously as they should have done, noting the way public warnings by WHO failed to trigger action on several occasions.

Integrated scientific capacity across the UN agencies could fulfil the need for economic and social analysis noted by the IOAC (my second bullet point). It seems this idea would be as relevant in a crisis as it would be in day-to-day scientific work. Indeed, intellectual rapport between scientific officials across the UN that had been established through routine work could provide the basis for an integrated crisis response.

There are obviously many forums through which UN officials talk to one another as well as no doubt joint projects between agencies (including for covid).(37) The authors of the UNJIU report, cited above, were relatively positive about ‘an emerging trend towards more systematic collaborative research’ in the UN (comment made before the pandemic).(38)

It is impossible, though, for me to judge if scientific links are considered satisfactory at this juncture nor is there any data that I am aware of concerning the intensity of interagency cooperation in science and how it changed through the course of the pandemic. As is obvious with any bureaucracy, interagency/interdepartmental activity is sometimes difficult to sustain.(39)

Another question concerns the call for use of WHO collaborating centers and other networks such as government labs to support the UN.

The WHO claims a big network of 822 collaborating centers which are, I believe, mainly groups of scientists in universities and public health institutes.(40) The most recent evaluation (May 2020) of the centers called for more systematic use such as by greater engagement with them and by communicating their activities more prominently both within and outside the WHO.(41)

A team of analysts that included WHO officials (Jakab, et al.) published an article last year following up on implications of the pandemic for the collaborating center model. Echoing the May 2020 evaluation, the authors argued that working with these facilities more would reinforce the WHO pandemic response.

But Jakab, et al. also highlighted a problem. Not only are there very few collaborating centers in Africa (35) but they had ‘a limited voice in contributing to the national and global knowledge pool and footprint in global health policy formulation’.

The authors did not make the point but these findings are perhaps not terribly surprising given the familiar critique of ‘global health’.

Collaborating centers appear to receive no financial support from WHO. Volunteerism has limitations and rarely substitutes for funded capacity. In terms of expansion of these networks among African scientific institutions, evidently, monies would be useful from member states.(42)

Conclusion

We obviously need the maximum scientific ingenuity to help us face such daunting societal challenges as an economic slump, climate change and the pandemic.

High-quality science/research is an ubiquitous and often prominent feature of the UN (and, indeed, development banks) that should be treasured.

Yet, in some parts of the UN, even basic financial security for units undertaking such activities is not always a given.

Attempts to raise funds and diversify funding sources ought therefore to be continuously supported (what tactics have been tried and are felt to have worked are beyond my study here, but could be documented).

How else can we make more of the science in the UN system? Answers can be read in the comments of my interviewees who are the experts. Other ideas I have come across include:

  • Expansion of UN scientific assets in low and middle income countries notably those in Africa.
  • Greater profile for science/research as a cross-cutting functionality (opinions probably differ as to how this might be achieved).
  • Boosted science communication capacity (meaning interventions to improve exchange of ideas, data, insights, etc.).

The most important in my view would be expansion of UN scientific capacity in low and middle income countries. This needs financial support from member states. It would be great to look back in a decade and say it had been measurably achieved.(43)

The answer to the question of how science and research could be strengthened in the UN therefore seems graspable.

I would like to thank the experts who shared information with me (besides those quoted, these included Nicolas Seidler, Executive Director, Geneva Science-Policy Interface). However, opinions expressed in this report remain my own and should not be construed as representing the views of others, except where clearly attributed.

(1) I have not made any effort to define science and research. These words are barely mentioned in the UN Charter. The terms might be more prominently featured in the foundational documents, constitutions, etc., of UN bodies (I did not do a survey). The UNU Charter offers some clues as to what would be ‘in’ and ‘out’ for the UNU.

(2) Academics have obviously been interested in knowledge and expertise in the UN bureaucracy but are perhaps yet to develop a comprehensive framework to understand it (caveating with the statement that I am simply a casual reader of academic literature). I personally found work by Littoz-Monnet and Zaidi informative (covering quite different aspects and from different academic perspectives).

(3) JIU/REP/2018/7 (p. iv): ‘…could not find any comprehensive assessments of research policies and activities…internal research processes are rather opaque and have never been considered major organizational vectors by decision-makers’.

(4) JIU/REP/2018/7 (p. iv)

(5) The previous report can be read here: Technology and Innovation Report 2021

(6) Nairobi Declaration on the Role and Mandate of the United Nations Environment Program (1997), p. 30.

(7) The recent studies from UNEP on noise/forest fires (cited above); and from IDB on trust illustrate lateral thinking on knowledge and evidence.

(8) https://www.sipa.columbia.edu/academics/programs/executive-education/macro-financial-policymaking-emerging-markets

(9) Dr. Filmer cited the latest (2020) World Development Report.

(10) None of what I say will surprise anyone familiar with the UN system. Observations can only be impressionistic because it seems difficult to put numbers on activities.

(11) I am afraid this is not the literature I follow. These are just impressions. Although obviously 20 years out of date, the report by the National Academies of Science of the USA, Knowledge and Diplomacy: Science Advice in the United Nations System (2002) in my view covers the arguments. A recent account is found in Kohler, 2022, Science-Policy Interfaces: From Warnings to Solutions (International Institute for Sustainable Development).

(12) Science diplomacy does not have a specific legal definition but seems to refer to science as a goodwill activity, negotiations on technical matters such as regulatory standards, or simply scientific knowledge or scientists in foreign ministries. Given diplomacy is as much a politically-undervalued activity as science, I am not sure the liaison is likely to do much for the visibility of either, valuable as it might be in other ways.

(13) A figure of ‘at least’ US$ 200m annually was noted for WHO as ‘dedicated to research in 2017 alone’, citing p. 16, World Health Organization Centre for Health Development (WHO Kobe Centre), Research plan (20182026). Kobe: World Health Organization; 2019 (WHO/WKC/2019.1). UNU cited ‘an approved budget’ of US$ 112m in their 2021 annual report (p. 54). Whichever way we define ‘science and research’, I will not be strict in definitions because the UN has no accounting system for them in place.

(14) The EU Horizon (research) program budget for the current MAF is Euro 100b. This budget would appear significantly higher if science-related spending from NextGenEU, the cohesion policy, JRC/EU Agencies, and other miscellaneous funds were added into the calculation. CERN and ESA websites provide budgets for their programs.

(15) Europe, where many UN bases for science are located, is of course also known for its well-funded public research systems. This raises the question of their role, if any, in funding in the UN. I did not have time to search the individual country databases. But my search of the EU CORDIS database using the term United Nations revealed the UN participated in €57m worth of EU research projects since 2006 (with about €8m of funding in which the UN entity was project coordinator). Does not seem much.

(16) Taking as an example the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti, founded in Firenze in 1988, the institution was ‘largely’ an initiative of the Christian Democrats ‘spearheaded’ by Giulio Andreotti (citing pp. 21-22 of the official history). Unsurprisingly, this made it contentious with the left-dominated regional government of the time. From another angle, controversy arose over whether the institution should even do ‘research’ as opposed to ‘social mobilization’; and, among ‘the Nordic countries’, about the credibility of Italian government proposals. These remarks hint at a foundational story connected to the regional political milieu as well as the scientific and intergovernmental worlds. But we cannot know much more about how these issues were resolved because few of the details are recorded in the official history.

(17) My assumption (which might well be wrong) is that these are separate legal entities affiliated to the parent organization: IMO International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI); IMO World Maritime University (WMO); UNESCO Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics; UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti. WHO Kobe Center is not a separate entity (‘part of WHO’s headquarters’) but possibly has certain features of one not least being located 10000km from Geneva.

(18) UNU is subdivided into 13 institutes.

(19) Created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

(20) IAEA Collaborating Centers; UNDP Global Policy Centers; WTO Chairs Programme; WHO Collaborating Centers; UNFPA University Network/TransformU. OPCW refers to designated laboratories but does not reveal their identity.

(21) Laboratories are the exception within the UN. The IAEA labs are located at Seibersdorf (Austria) and Monaco (Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture at the Seibersdorf site). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (affiliated to WHO) also appears to operate labs. IAEA and IARC have had to undertake extensive fundraising campaigns for extra-budgetary contributions to renew scientific facilities.

(22) In the recently evaluated UNDP case, it was a US$ 71m program (p. 11) that involved embedding three staff members (p. 10) in each of the UNDP country offices around the world to conduct studies and pilots that supported operations. This, I believe, channelled new ideas about experimental governance (it obviously also draws on a long history of embedding science and research in operations departments, country offices, etc.).

(23) UNEP World Environment Situation Room

(24) Science and research, where present, presumably not associated with a named bureaucratic structure (as far as I could tell).

(25) Given the agency has a direct role in administering education, healthcare, the water system, etc., there must be a need for scientific knowledge in terms of designing, commissioning and running services. However, I was unable to find named science, research or science advisory functions.

(26) Has a chief economist, and units involved in statistics and data analytics, horizon scanning and foresight. UPU identifies research as a function of the executive office.

(27) JIU/REP/2018/7 (p. 15); UNU: https://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/publication/106699/unu_ar_2021_en.pdf (p. 54).

(28) Examples of the tendency include UNU, IAEA, UNRISD, UNEP (Copenhagen Climate Centre), UNDP, WHO, WTO, UNESCO and UNFPA.

(29) The IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, for example, list what would seem to be a typical range of analytical techniques in a description of their science program. (https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/21/11/2021-11-22_fml2_fact_sheet_vol2_final.pdf, p. 2).

(30) The Principles Governing International Statistics Activities is perhaps one possible exception to that comment as they seem to have been taken up system-wide. The document lists broad aspirations which would probably not be controversial among scientists even if governments do not always follow them.

(31) Points in part taken from: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_723172.pdf (p. 6); https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/PPR_Report.pdf (footnote 14); and UNRISD, 2021, Overcoming Inequalities: Towards a New Eco-social Contract (UNRISD Strategy 2021-2025), p. 20. Calls for interdisciplinary activity are commonplace and perhaps over-played. Some scholars would even consider such calls undisciplined (literally/figuratively) and therefore unlikely to lead to reliable knowledge. These scholars may have a point. Intellectual silos are not bad in principle; indeed, they are probably the more usual if not necessary form for science and research. But, at least for certain problems, mixed approaches might chime with the disordered world of policy in which the UN by necessity operates.

(32) Last year, for example, the UN Secretary-General, Guterres, referred to ‘data, analytics and communications’, ‘innovation and digital transformation’, ‘strategic foresight’ and ‘behavioural science’ among his management changes (under the headings of ‘UN 2.0’ and ‘quintet of change’). See also: https://sdgs.un.org/news/ten-eminent-scientists-and-researchers-advise-un-unleashing-power-technology-development-33133. Given philanthropists have corporate backgrounds, philanthropic and corporate worlds perhaps elide at these points.

(33) ‘A problem specific to inter-governmental policy-making processes at the UN is that the interests and priorities of 193 Member States need to be balanced, leading to research findings and evidence-based policy recommendations tending to be disregarded in light of political imperatives,’ citing Strengthening the UN’s Research Uptake, Conference Report, April 2016.

(34) In my view, the two most useful from the perspective of science and research in general were those by the Independent Oversight Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Program (document seems to be undated but refers to the first few months of the pandemic); and the analysis of Jakab, et al. (August 2021) that builds on the IOAC report. Regrettably, I am not aware of follow up for later in the pandemic.

(35) The point about understaffing is reinforced in point 14 of another document, A74/16, https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/dco/independent-oversight-and-advisory-committee/a74_16_e.pdf?sfvrsn=3bd1929d_1&download=true.

(36) https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/dco/independent-oversight-and-advisory-committee/a74_16_e.pdf?sfvrsn=3bd1929d_1&download=true, p. 6.

(37) I would guess there are going to be so many examples in such a big bureaucracy (no one should be recommending more meetings, though). Specific examples I heard about in the course of my interviews and reading for this report include the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the UN Crisis Management Team (UNCMT), UN Interagency Task Team on STI for the SDGs (IATT), High Level Committee on Programs (HLCP), UN Innovation Network, and Ad Hoc Global Assessments Dialogue (the latter focused on environmental matters).

(38) JIU/REP/2018/7 (pp. x-xi, 38-42)

(39) Another UN JIU report (not specifically on science) argued that policies governing staff mobility between agencies (and with organizations outside the UN) was ‘not…adequate’ (p. iii) due to long-standing issues such as ‘the siloed, fragmented and protective, as well as inward and often duplicative, nature of staff selection and assessment…and the analogous fragmentation of business operations that undermine efficiency, agility and functioning’ (p. iv).

(40) Each WHO center is defined as ‘an institution designated by the Director-General to form part of an international collaborative network carrying out activities in support of the Organization’s programme at all levels…[such as] participation in collaborative research developed under the Organization’s leadership, including the planning, conduct, monitoring and evaluation of research’. WHO Basic Documents, forty-ninth edition (2020), pp. 168-169.

(41) https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/documents/about-us/evaluation/evaluation-of-who-ccs-report.pdf?sfvrsn=1bebb49a_1&download=true, pp. 38-39.

(42) The recent proposal by WHO to create a vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa seems to fall within an established pattern of ‘technical assistance’ with the aim of establishing particular kinds of industrial production, i.e., the WHO is not proposing to expand its own expertise in biotechnology RD&D/production but to facilitate knowledge transfer between outside parties (although, of course, these activities might in practice overlap).

(43) In this context, perhaps it is a shame that IAEA and IARC (WHO) ran fundraising campaigns to re-equip laboratories in Europe as necessary as that might have been.

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