A brief history of UNESCO's science policy programme

Between 1965 and 1991, UNESCO tended to focus on science policy and the organization of scientific research in developed countries, such as France, Germany, Japan, the USA and the Republic of Korea.

In the early 1990s, science policy studies were phased out as a separate entity within UNESCO. As a result, requests from Member States for support in areas of science and technology policy were responded to in a less focused way.

During the period 1988-1993, UNESCO’s and Science & Technology Policy Programme (STP) evolved into a Programme on Science Technology and Society (STS). This programme had three main components:

  1. promotion of scientific and technological culture in society, which included the organization of the first World Conference on Science Journalists and the international seminars on planning science museums;
  2. assistance in the management of science and technology policies and training of personnel, with emphasis on the provision of policy advice and establishment of regional networks for training and research in this field;
  3. science ethics; the programme for the Ethics of Science and Technology was entrusted to UNESCO’s Sector for Social and Human Sciences in 2000 by then Director-General, Koïchiro Matsuura.

The UNESCO General Conference, which brings together all of UNESCO’s Member States every two years to approve the programme and budget for the coming biennium, decided at its 27th session in 1993 to terminate the Programme on Science Technology and Society. The main reason cited was the need to concentrate UNESCO's resources on a smaller number of priority areas.

The same General Conference, however, adopted a resolution inviting the Director-General to "’promote the reflection on the place, in UNESCO's programme as a whole, of the questions relating to science, technology and society’.

The Director-General at that time, Federico Mayor, nominated a group of experts to advise him on the issue. This group submitted its conclusions in July 1994. It recommended that ‘…steps be taken as soon as possible to launch a programme on science and society, including the allocation of resources and the establishment of an appropriate supporting structure, so that it can be fully operational in the next medium-term plan for 1996 to 2001’.

This reflection prompted the decision to hold a World Conference on Science in 1999, in partnership with the International Council for Science, in order to establish a new social contract for science articulated around the concept of science in society and for society. One outcome of the conference for UNESCO was the creation of World Science Day for Peace and Development in 2001 and of the biennial World Science Forum in 2003.

Jacques Richardson, Head of UNESCO’s Science and Society Section from 1972 to 1985 and former editor of Impact of Science on Society, observed in Sixty Years of Science at UNESCO (2006) that ‘the publication of Impact continued until the early 1990s, when it was converted into the biennial World Science Report’. Impact of Science on Society had appeared regularly since the 1950s.

The World Science Report first appeared in 1993 then again in 1996 and 1998. Following an external review of UNESCO’s policy with regard to world reports, its name was changed to UNESCO Science Report and it became a quinquennial report. Today, the UNESCO Science Report monitors the state of science, technology and innovation around the world every five years (2005, 2010, 2015, etc.) and is contributing to monitoring progress towards the ninth Sustainable Development Goal to 2030 relating to infrastructure, industrialization and innovation.


In 2002, the Division of Science Analysis and Policies came into being, thereby heralding the re-entry of UNESCO to the international science policy community. In recent years, UNESCO has collaborated with sister agencies and other partners on assessments of the science policy systems in Albania, Bahrain, Botswana, Congo, Lebanon, Nigeria, Peru, Morocco and the Palestinian Territories, among others. (See Science Policy Studies series and Country Studies).

In 2005, the division was renamed the Division for Science Policy and Sustainable Development. It advised governments in the formulation and implementation of science, technology and innovation policies that integrated sustainable development.

In 2011, it was renamed the Division of Science Policy and Capacity-Building, to reflect the merger with the Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences. A key innovation of this period was the launch of the Global Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Instruments.

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