APS News


International and US efforts to regulate civil society participants

By Irving A. Lerch

Science is the most universal of intellectual enterprises with a common lexicon and universal standards. Yet the social structure of science is complex with overlapping entities, missions, authorities, alliances, connections to government and institutions, interests, areas of expertise, governance, agreements and outreach. It consists of non-governmental organizations, the private sector, governments, inter-governmental agencies such as the UN system (to include specialized agencies, the World Bank and World Monetary Fund and regional development banks), OAS and OECD, large regional science organizations such as the high-energy research center CERN, regulatory organizations such as ITO, international commissions such as the International Oceanographic Commission, and multilateral agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol.

The UN family has recognized science and engineering as important cultural enterprises with profound impact on economic development and security. Two agencies serve to illustrate the importance of the UN to such issues as environment, education, energy and national security: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The international face of the scientific community is the International Council for Science (ICSU).

In recent years, a consortium of national science academies has formed the Inter-Academy Panel to coordinate efforts to influence science-based policy for development and other cross-cutting international issues. The subsequent organization of the Inter-Academy Council to serve as an operating arm similar to the role played by the National Research Council for the National Academy complex, has begun to take on a more active role by publishing studies for delivery to governments and the UN.

In the early 1990s, the international physics community began to look to UNESCO as an instrument to unify and coordinate the international outreach of the global physics enterprise (even though the US and the UK had withdrawn from UNESCO in 1984). The Physics Action Council (PAC) convened an organizing meeting in April, 1994. The PAC remained an active component of the Organization’s programs throughout the period of 1994-1999.

Almost immediately, the council’s working groups began an aggressive program of international outreach, organizing meetings and workshops on telecommunications, access to large international research facilities and new approaches to invigorate physics education. In all cases these efforts were directed to complementing and strengthening the programs of the Science Sector and ICTP. Today, the afterglow of the council’s activities may be seen in the UNESCO-supported SESAME project, the programs of the telecommunications and informatics sectors of the Organization, and in the awareness that science education plays a crucial role in developing the intellectual capacity of nations. At no time did the governments of any participating expert intervene or demand prior notice.

However, over the past few years, a troubling pattern of US government interference with the traditional lines connecting UN intergovernmental programs with civil society has arisen in the guise of demands that government officials be consulted and informed in advance of contacts between agency secretariats and US citizens and residents. This now threatens to transfer authority for expert appointments to UN committees, conferences and commissions from the learned and professional communities to officials in the US government. The threat arising from such a transformation is that appointments will no longer be based on merit but on bureaucratic and political considerations. The independence and integrity of such fora, committees and commissions will thus be compromised.

In analyzing these trends, the operative word is “consult.” What constitutes consultation? During the Cold War, the Soviet government closely controlled interactions between UN secretariats and Soviet citizens. It was not uncommon for the organizing committee for an expert meeting to proffer invitations to a known scientist only to find his or her place taken by an unknown Soviet government official. By contrast, US government officials when asked to approve such appointments and invitations usually demurred pointing out that the US did not interfere in the professional work ofits citizens.

In these cases, consultation was taken to mean “informed.” In the case of invitations to government delegations for treaty discussions, consultation meant both informed and government approval as is always the case when policy and intergovernmental deliberation is contemplated.

In any event, all correspondence to UN secretariats is copied and distributed to relevant program managers and the resident representatives of the nations whose interests are at stake or whose citizens are being contacted. This is the parochial meaning of “consult.”

On May 5 of this year, the US Resident Representative to UNESCO, Ambassador Louis Oliver, sent a remarkable memorandum to the UNESCO Director-General demanding a series of steps that included the following:

  • Any correspondence from outside the Commission or Resident representative's (RR) office is to be copied and circulated to her office.
  • Invitations to scientists and engineers must be cleared in advance.
  • Contracts are subject to US oversight and consultation.
  • Planning of events require advance consultation.
  • Fundraising is not to be undertaken without consultation with the RR.
  • Private citizens and organizations calling upon UNESCO must be told to contact the national commission first.

Of these bullets, the first is routine procedure and I doubt that the UNESCO secretariat has failed to do this simple administrative task. The other bullets are astounding and would make interactions with civil society difficult and, perhaps, impossible. The last bullet is especially troubling since the State Department considers the US National Commission as consultative only–to act at the volition and direction of Commission staff. As for fundraising, most expert consultants who have worked with the UN agencies are well-aware that their ability to function depends on their ability to raise funds to supplement the inadequate budgets of the UN system.

In a similar vein, the Department of Health and Human Services demanded that WHO not invite US scientists to participate in meetings or projects. They insisted that the nature of the problem be conveyed to NIH and NIH would assign scientists. Happily WHO refused to accede to this stipulation.

Equally troubling was the decision last year by the State Department to object to the recruitment of US Social Scientists to participate in the work of UNESCO and the subsequent withdrawal of appointments and invitations.

This is unprecedented interference over the participation of civil society in the scientific and technological work of the UN system and is unworthy of a democracy. It abridges the right of US citizens to develop and maintain associations with whomever they choose. It concentrates the authority for such associations within a bureaucracy unable to deal with the substance of the issues before it. It confuses the difference between experts and government representatives, between knowledge and policy. It undermines community self-governance and community standards and undermines the integrity of mechanisms designed to express scientific and engineering consensus.

In short, there is evidence that the US government is moving to superintend the association of scientists and their professional and learned societies within the UN agencies in an effort to control scientific input to programs that have influence over policy debates. While intergovernmental discussions in convention negotiations require the participation of certified government representatives, scientific advice has traditionally been the province of the science and engineering civil sector. The intrusion of government into access to scientific and technological expertise constitutes an abridgement of scientific freedom and self-governance of the scientific community and threatens the integrity of international science organs.

Irving Lerch is chair-elect of the APS Forum on International Physics and a member of the Board of Trustees of Americans for UNESCO. The opinions expressed are personal and do not represent the official views of either organization.

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