The United Nations of science: why we need it

16/1/2010 New Scientist Magazine issue 2743. AS THE disappointment of the Copenhagen climate summit sinks in, you could be forgiven for despairing of science ever being put at the centre of international policy-making. But scientists are not giving up the fight.This week, an important meeting is taking place at the Royal Society in London. The outcome will determine how the world’s finest scientific minds engage collectively with governments worldwide to make sure they have the benefit of the best possible scientific advice.

The meeting is of a body you may never have heard of: the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP), a global coalition of national science academies from Albania to Zimbabwe. Its task this week is to agree a way forward for scientific advice to government - how the world of science, speaking as one, can reach out to policy-makers to help solve the critical global challenges we now face.

The IAP was founded in New Delhi, India, in 1993 in response to growing concerns about world population. It has since grown in size and reputation as more and more academies have joined its ranks and new ones have been founded. From the Royal Society, the oldest academy in continuous existence, to the academies of Mozambique and Nicaragua, both founded a year ago, the IAP now has 103 members. The most recent member is the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan. It is the United Nations of science.

IAP has worked on issues as diverse as population growth, ocean acidification and the teaching of evolution. The organisation’s ambition is to become the most influential voice for the world’s scientists amid the clamour of politicians and lobby groups.

IAP is also working hard to promote better science education, support young scientists and improve science communication. This is especially important in the developing world: IAP strives to help the poorest countries build their science, technology and advisory capacities and thus champion robust, evidence-based policy-making.

There are promising signs that science is increasingly being seen as an integral part of international politics. For example, there is a growing recognition that international science cooperation can be used to improve relations between countries. Scientists often succeed where politicians fail, working together for the greater good while their countries are mired in conflict.

The world now faces challenges on an unprecedented level, which we are unequivocally failing to address. The challenges are also far more complex than ever before - there are no simple questions, let alone answers, and irrational opinion often rules over rational facts. Without sound scientific advice, governments have no hope of solving issues from nuclear weapons to food security, disease and energy.

This week, the IAP will try to produce a road map for anticipating and solving the challenges ahead. Right now, that could not be more vital.

Lorna Casselton is foreign secretary of the Royal Society and emeritus professor of fungal genetics at the University of Oxford