5 reasons for a UN Chief Scientific Advisor

From global pandemics and Earth-system thresholds to internet terrorism and ocean acidification, the international community faces more and more globally interconnected risks. It may seem surprising then that the UN has yet to appoint a Chief Scientific Advisor to coordinate and provide crucial advice in times of crisis. Here are five reasons why it would be a good idea (and at the end, a few reasons why it wouldn’t):

1. Leadership. A Chief Scientific Advisor answering directly to the UN Secretary General and with direct access to the most senior politicians would provide a much-needed figurehead for the scientific community.

2. A rapid and considered response in a time of crisis minimising knee-jerk reactions and maximising independent, impartial advice.

3. A strengthened and strategic science-policy interface at the international level that many think lies in tatters. Certainly it is fragmented, weak and lacks coherency. A Chief Scientific Advisor could begin building a more coherent structure internationally and develop close links with independent international scientists and with national Chief Scientific Advisors.

4. Financial and ecological crises show how globalisation has driven us into an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. Systemic risk is rising. To minimize systemic risk we need a good understanding of complex systems and how to manage them. A Chief Scientific Advisor will see the bigger picture to support policymakers in dealing with these new types of crises.

5. Long-term thinking. Politicians and policymakers in the UN and in nation states often think in terms of the one-to-four year electoral cycle, occasionally stretching to a decade or longer if they absolutely have to. But many of our actions now will be irreversible with severe consequences for future generations. A Chief Scientific Advisor can provide this long-term independent view and advice.

Some reasons not to

1. From WHO to WMO and UNEP, the UN has plenty of acronyms with plenty of experts to offer advice. (But who has the oversight and long-term view? And this encourages fragmentation.)

2. There is enough bureaucracy at the UN so don’t add to it. (Fair point.)

3. The problem is not the absence of a Chief Scientific Advisor, the problem is the lack of political will to deal with problems. (Yes. This is not a panacea, and admittedly it won’t solve the leadership deficit issue. But it wasn’t designed to.)

Could it happen?

The Rio+20 Summit in June 2012 provides a window of opportunity to create such a new position. If the idea fails this time then it could be several years or decades before such an opportunity comes up again. If such a position were created — and I have made recommendations along these lines to Ban Ki Moon’s High Level Global Sustainability Panel and to the Rio+20 process — then ideally this person would report directly to the Secretary General, head up a small secretariat, and work across the whole UN system and beyond.

Personally, I always liked the idea of creating the position of Planetary Ecologist as a senior role at the United Nations, maybe right there at the top. There is little doubt such a role is needed. But the UN would be unlikely to do something quite so radical so I guess a starting point is the creation of Chief Scientific Advisor, which will essentially amount to the same thing but less exciting title.

The UK example

When it comes to climate-change legislation you can look at the UK and ask why has this country gone further than most. One key reason was a strong Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King. King had a direct link to the higher echelons of UK power. He steadily ramped up pressure on a Labour government open to ideas and supportive of science. I think three factors contributed significantly to sealing the deal: the chief scientist’s undoubted charisma, his strategy and his direct links to the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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