UNESCO works to advance and promote science in the interests of peace, sustainable development and human security and well-being, in close collaboration with its Member States and a wide variety of partners. It is the only United Nations specialized agency, symbolized by the ‘S’ in the acronym, with a specific mandate for science.
Since its foundation in 1945 UNESCO has acted as a catalyst for the establishment of many, now leading, scientific unions and bodies such as CERN; and initiatives with far-reaching implications for sustainable human security and well-being, such as the Man and the Biosphere Programme, the International Hydrological Programme, and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, were launched in UNESCO’s first decades.
- Catalyses international cooperation in science;
- Promotes dialogue between scientists and policy makers;
- Builds capacity in science;
- Advocates for science;
- Acts as a platform for sharing ideas and standard setting;
- Implements programmes and projects in science throughout the world.
UNESCO hosts major international programmes in the freshwater, marine, ecological, earth and basic sciences. Science policy at the national and sectoral levels is a key part of UNESCO’s work in science. Emphasis is given to developing countries, in particular to Africa and to ensuring gender equality in science. Cross-cutting themes include natural disaster reduction, biodiversity, engineering, science education, climate change and sustainable development in small island developing states.
It is increasingly recognized that solutions to today’s global challenges such as climate change and youth unemployment need a multi-sectoral response and in this regard UNESCO mobilizes scientific knowledge in the context of its multidisciplinary mandate in education, culture, the social and human sciences and communication.
The Natural Sciences Sector, headed by Assistant Director-General Ms Flavia Schlegel, is staffed with around 120 people who implement programmes through the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and a network of field offices around the world.
Field offices with a regional mandate specifically focusing on science:
- Nairobi (Africa);
- Jakarta (Asia and the Pacific);
- Venice (Europe and North America);
- Cairo (Arab States);and
- Montevideo (Latin America and the Caribbean).
The International Science Programmes are central to the execution of UNESCO’s work in the sciences:
- International Hydrological Programme (IHP);
- Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB);
- International Geosciences Programme (IGCP);
- International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP).
In addition to these programmes, a body with functional autonomy within UNESCO carries out a specific mandate on ocean sciences: the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO).
The Natural Sciences Sector also implements its programmes through:
- the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, in Delft, the Netherlands;
- the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), in Trieste, Italy;
- the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in Montreal, Canada; and
- a network of around 50 associated centres in the fields of water, renewable energy, science policy, biotechnology, geosciences, the basic sciences and remote sensing.
Over 250 of the UNESCO/UNITWIN University chairs are science related.