Malaysia’s Science Advisor to the PM shares his thoughts on the first meeting of the UN Scientific Advisory Board.
THE scientists asked for it, and they got it. The interests of science at the very highest level of international relationships are now being taken care of by members of their very own community under the auspices of the United Nations Scientific Advisory Board.
Twenty-six eminent scientists from all over the world converged in Berlin, Germany, at the end of January for the very first meeting of the board, which was formed last year.
It is responsible for advising the UN secretary-general and executive heads of all UN organisations on science, technology and innovation for sustainable development.
One of the board members is our very own Prof Emeritus Dr Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister.
Considering the prominent international positions he has held, including as current and founding chair of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), it did not come as a surprise when the biodiversity expert was announced as one of the 26 members of the board.
“To be frank, I knew beforehand that I was one of the individuals being considered by (UN secretary-general) Ban Ki-Moon to be a member of the board,” Prof Zakri says during an interview at his office in the Prime Minister’s Department in Putrajaya.
He believes that his appointment was influenced by his extensive international experience, particularly in the UN arena, and Malaysia’s current economic status.
“There are many excellent scientists from the developed countries, including Nobel laureates. But some of these guys don’t know the situation in developing countries.
“It’s only people like me, or somebody who has lived and breathed in this part of the world, who know the issues,” he shares.
The board’s first two-day meeting in Berlin was, in a sense, a get-to-know-you session.
As Prof Zakri puts it: “These are 26 people who do not exactly know each another, and they are really eminent personalities. They have different and varying views on how science and technology can be used to address some of the global challenges faced by the UN.”
These problematic areas, however, were more easily identified and prioritised, as they remain the same as when then-secretary-general Kofi Annan pinpointed them just before the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002.
They are: water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity.
“In short, it’s called WEHAB, which is so simple to remember. You just need to remember, WE inHABit the earth,” says Prof Zakri.
Some of these problems include: the lack of access to quality water; the search for renewable green technologies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels; the continuing epidemics of infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries; the rise of non-communicable diseases across the globe; food security; and conserving our biodiversity.
“These questions are really intertwined. For instance, like the issue of water; you need water for agricultural production, so which is your priority (drinking water or agriculture)?
“You need land to increase agricultural production, but at the same time, you threaten biodiversity if you open up forests.
“So, these are the type of issues being targeted by the international community,” Prof Zakri explains.
With the Millennium Development Goals coming to the end of their time in 2015, it has been proposed that they be replaced with new targets revolving around sustainable development.
“In our meeting, we discussed first what kind of science, what kind of technology would improve human wellbeing,” Prof Zakri says.
“The science that we are addressing has to be relevant to these global challenges. So, it needs the buy-in of the policymakers; hence, whatever advice we scientists recommend to Ban Ki-moon would have to be policy-relevant.”
He adds that the board also agreed that whatever advice it gives should be in line with the policies and decisions already made at the international level.
One of the practical matters decided upon during the meeting was the formation of smaller task forces to deal with the different areas of science needed to assist global development, as well as the type of approaches needed.
Prof Zakri notes that science has already accumulated a lot of knowledge, but that knowledge needs to be applied to solve practical problems, and made acceptable to different countries in different stages of development.
He adds that the board is also interested in examining the applications of indigenous or local knowledge.
“The (application of) conventional science is to be expected, but there is also a notion of the relevance of (such) knowledge.
“These are practical actions that have been tested by numerous indigenous or local communities around the world,” he says, citing the example of the fire-fighting techniques of Australian aborigines.
The idea, he adds, is to see if this practical localised knowledge can be applied in other parts of the world.
Proving its worth
More importantly, Prof Zakri believes that the board needs to prove its relevance as quickly as possible.
“I firmly believe we need to have early wins, to demonstrate the usefulness of such a panel.
“And to demonstrate that early win, you would have to produce best practices or examples on the ground – that is the challenge that we are still looking at,” he says.
Prof Zakri will have the opportunity to push for this goal at the board’s next meeting in July, as he will be co-chair.
“Most of the sessions at the (first) meeting were chaired by the director-general of Unesco, Irina Bokova, but I was pleased to be requested by her to co-chair the next meeting of the board this year.”
As for his own take on this inaugural meeting, Prof Zakri says: “These are senior people, wise people. And all the voices expressed are really sensible.
“For me, personally, it has been an inspiring meeting, to be with this group. There were a lot of attempts to understand one another’s views and to come to a consensus.
“But we also had a very able chair. It is no coincidence that the Unesco director-general was chairing our meeting.”
The ultimate purpose of the board, he says, is to look for knowledge that has practical use.
“I think at the end of the day, that is the value of such an eminent board – to access, to collect, to collate, to synthesise that scientific knowledge that can be translated into very useful practical recommendations, which can applied on the ground in (the) respective countries of the world.
“That would ... (give us) our legitimacy.”