As international diplomacy tackles issues in which science and technology play a central role, the United Nations (UN) risks being relegated to the sidelines. The influence and effectiveness of diplomats and international civil servants will increasingly depend on the extent to which they can mobilize scientific and technical expertise in their work. This need not require the UN to acquire extensive in-house scientific competence, but the organization – especially the office of the secretary general – must learn to tap advisory services to identify, mobilize, and use the best available expertise.
Although a large number of UN agencies, programs, and treaties rely on scientific and technological expertise for their work, they are not designed to receive systematic science advice as a key component of effective performance. In most cases – no surprise – science is used in the UN to support special interests and political agendas that do not necessarily advance the goals of the organization. The UN was founded and grew to prominence during the Cold War, when external aggression was the core issue. Today, issues such as infectious diseases, environmental degradation, electronic crimes, weapons of mass destruction, and the impact of new technologies are of importance. In the past, these were the concerns of individual nations; now they have grown to international stature. The UN's capacity to deal with these questions must also grow.
The UN includes organizations that cater to a wide range of jurisdictions but not to the growing community of science advisors. Even agencies such as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have done little to provide a platform for the world’s science advisors. Specialized agencies such as UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the UN Industrial Development Organization relate to the UN secretary general’s office through a bureaucratic hierarchy blithely unresponsive to timeliness. They are accountable to their governing bodies and influenced by the interests of activist states.
Even UN programs that deal with science-based issues – say, the environment – have not placed knowledge at the core of their operations. They fail to take into account the long-term