News from the International Council for Science: Strengthening international science for the benefit of society

To many readers of Electronic Journal of Biotechnology, ICSU is probably not much more than an acronym –and an outdated one, for that matter, since the International Council of Scientific Unions , as it was originally called, is now the International Council for Science. In fact, ICSU is a vibrant organization with extensive involvement and influence in the international scientific landscape. Since its establishment in 1931, it has strived to ensure that the best scientific knowledge is made available to policy makers, and it has taken the lead in exploring areas that are important to society as a whole.

The main strength of ICSU resides in its membership, comprised of over 150 bodies: 29 International Scientific Unions plus 104 National Members and more than 20 Scientific Associates. In addition, interdisciplinary bodies – some co-sponsored by UN agencies or major non-governmental organizations – have provided a focus for scientists to work together in key priority areas, such as global environmental change, biodiversity, or scientific data and information.

Much has been achieved in these 75 years by this broad and active network of scientific bodies under the aegis of ICSU , with the guidance of its Executive Board and the support of a small Secretariat based in Paris . Yet the international scientific community is faced today with new challenges, that add to some old ones still in need of further attention.

For this reason an ambitious Strategic Plan for the period 2006-2011 was presented to the 28 th ICSU General Assembly in China last October. This plan, which is the culmination of an extensive series of international reviews and consultations over the past 3 years, identifies priority areas where ICSU is equipped to make a significant contribution. Major areas of activity include: the Global Earth Observation Systems, the International Polar Year, Global Environmental Change, Environmental Hazards and Disasters, Sustainable Development, Energy, Human Health, Intellectual Property, Science and Society, and Capacity Building . In this limited space, let me refer to some recent ICSU activities and elements of the Strategic Plan in just two broad areas that may be of particular interest for the readers of Electronic Journal of Biotechnology.

Data and Information

Data and information issues pervade all scientific endeavours and, as such, are of concern to the entire scientific community. Either individually or working together, many members of ICSU are very active with regard to scientific data. For example, in 2002, an Inter-Union Bioinformatics Group (IUBG) was set up, which produced an authoritative report and recommendations regarding biological databases. 

In 1992, ICSU established the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications ( INASP ), an interdisciplinary body created to help bridge the information divide between developed and developing countries. In just over a decade, INASP has brought important benefits to the scientific and scholarly publishing community in many countries in the developing world.

Further, the International Council for Scientific and Technical Information ( ICSTI ) is an important associate member, and ICSU also has several interdisciplinary bodies, whose principal focus is the management and use of large scientific data sets: the Committee on Data for Science and Technology ( CODATA ), the Panel of the World Data Centres ( WDC ) and the Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical Data Analysis Services ( FAGS ).

The end of second phase of the UN World Summit on the Information Society ( WSIS ) was marked by a major Summit meeting in Tunis in November 2005. ICSU and several Interdisciplinary Bodies and Members played a prominent role in an event that preceded the Summit and brought together a diverse range of experts from the public and private sectors to discuss the future of research in the Information Society. The Summit also provided a forum for the advancement of a new Global Information Commons for Science Initiative , which aims to bring together various stakeholders for the purpose of facilitating open access to and re-use of publicly-funded scientific data and information, and of promoting cooperative sharing of research tools and materials among researchers.

To define its future activities in this field, ICSU recently undertook a Priority Area Assessment on Data and Information. Members of the assessment panel proposed the development of a new Scientific Data and Information Forum (SciDIF) to help implement a more coordinated approach across different scientific disciplines and countries and to strengthen the public domain for science and develop appropriate national and international policies on intellectual property rights.

Regional Offices

From the outset, ICSU has stood ready to promote international science for the benefit of society with a global view; however, only more recently it has come to fully recognize that this cannot be achieved without a stronger presence of and in developing countries. Following a recommendation of the panel tasked to review the activities of the former Committee on Science for Developing Countries (COSTED), one of the major decisions taken by the previous ICSU General Assembly held in Brazil in 2002 was to establish four Regional Offices in Africa, the Arab Region, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2003, all National Members of the regions were invited to offer to host and financially support these Regional Offices, and one can note with satisfaction the advances made over the past three years.

In September 2005, the Regional Office for Africa was inaugurated by the South African Minister for Science and Technology in Pretoria . A Regional Scientific Committee has been established to advise on the priorities and actions for this Office. Based on ICSU's Strategic Plan, the Committee agreed on the following four initial priorities: (i) health and human-well being, (ii) sustainable energy, (iii) natural and human-induced hazards, and (iv) global climate change.

The inauguration of the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, which will be located at the Academy of Sciences Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur , will take place in September 2006, and discussions are ongoing with regard to the establishment of an office for the Arab Region.

With regard to the Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, National Members are being consulted on an offer from the Brazilian Academy of Sciences to establish it in Rio de Janeiro . It is also planned to organize a first meeting of the Regional Committee later this year. For this purpose, nominations are being sought of prominent scientists, particularly among those who are actively involved in the ICSU Interdisciplinary Bodies or in one of the International Scientific Unions. Further, one should recall that an important background for ICSU's presence in Latin America and the Caribbean was provided by the Committee of Regional Scientific Networks (sponsored in part by UNESCO and ICSU ), which functioned as the COSTED office in the region prior to the dismantlement of this Committee.

Through these four Regional Offices, the voice of the developing countries in ICSU should become much stronger. One more step in the same direction is the creation of the Policy Committee for Developing Countries , which was set up in 2004 to provide strategic vision and advice to ICSU and its Members from the perspective of the developing world. Further, through the Officers of ICSU there is strong representation from developing countries, with Professors Goverdhan Mehta from India as ICSU President, Khotso Mokhele from South Africa as Vice-President for Scientific Planning and Review, Hernan Chaimovich from Brazil as Vice-President for External Relations, and myself from Mexico as Secretary-General. In addition, Sergio Pastrana from Cuba is an ordinary member of the Executive Board. Together we have an important responsibility to represent the views and interests of scientists from the developing world in ICSU's governing bodies and to further one of the central aims of the organization, which is shared by Electronic Journal of Biotechnology, namely: to move from science to development.

Finally, 2006 marks the 75 th anniversary of the establishment of ICSU , and a number of activities are being planned to mark this occasion. All Members, partners and friends of ICSU are being invited to celebrate with us 75 years of strengthening international science for the benefit of society.

Ana María Cetto


New Genetics, Food and Agriculture


In 2003, ICSU's former Advisory Committee on Genetic Experimentation and Biotechnology (ACOGEB).commissioned a meta-review on the current state of scientific knowledge on genetic technologies and food production, in order to guide public policy development and to provide orientation for researchers. The report was published under the title: New Genetics, Food and Agriculture: Scientific Discoveries – Societal Dilemmas.

This is a unique synthesis of more than 50 independent and authoritative enquiries concerning the risks and benefits of applying new genetic discoveries to food and agriculture. It is based on publications by national academies of science, international agencies and other organizations between 2000 and 2003. The review focuses on five key questions concerning genetically modified foods that reflect the concerns of society:

  • Who needs GM foods?
  • Are they safe to eat?
  • Will there be any effects on the environment?
  • Are the regulations adequate?
  • Will they affect trade?

The report is available on the ICSU website , with abstracts and full texts of all source documents.


Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network