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An overview

Stakeholders  / Build-up  / Programme  / Outcome  / Follow-up  / Contact


Science is a powerful means of understanding the world in which we live and it is also capable of yielding enormous returns that directly enhance socio-economic development and the quality of our lives. Scientific advances over the last fifty years have led to revolutionary changes in health, nutrition and communication; moreover, the role of science promises to be yet greater in the future because of ever-more-rapid scientific progress.

Meanwhile, humanity is being confronted with problems on a global scale, many - such as environmental degradation, pollution and climatic change - provoked by the mismanagement of natural resources or unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Even if the technology implicated in these problems can be said to have stemmed from science, we cannot hope to resolve these problems without the correct and timely use of science in the future.

And yet, in spite of the opportunities it offers us all, science itself is facing wavering confidence and uncertain investment, as well as dilemmas of an ethical nature. These problems can only be solved if the scientific and business communities, governments and the general public are able to reach, through debate, a common ground on science with respect to the service it is to provide to society and a new commitment to science from society in the years to come.

In convening a World Conference on Science for the Twenty-First Century: a New Commitment, from 26 June to 1 July 1999 in Budapest, Hungary, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council for Science (ICSU), in co-operation with other partners, provided a unique forum for this much-needed debate between the scientific community and society.

STAKEHOLDERS    Back to contents

The Conference addressed and involved national governments and institutions, educational and research establishments, members of the scientific community, the industrial sector, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and international scientific non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as the media and the general public. All stakeholders with a vested interest in science and its role in societal development were welcome as active participants in the Conference process, although participation in the Conference itself was by invitation only. A special role was played by the specialized agencies of the United Nations system, and those governmental and non-governmental bodies directly concerned with the scientific enterprise. At the Conference, policy-makers, scientists and representatives of society in general together discussed the above issues and the means of increasing the commitment to, and from, science.

BUILD-UP    Back to contents

The World Conference on Science was conceived as a process consisting of a preparatory phase, the Conference itself and a vigorous follow-up programme. During the preparatory phase, UNESCO and ICSU invited their many partners to associate their conferences, meetings and other events with the Conference in order to raise awareness on science and mobilize general debate worldwide. A total of 69 meetings organized around the world between June 1995 and June 1999 were associated with the Conference; the organizers of 52 of these meetings took up the invitation to submit a report containing recommendations to the World Conference on Science (see Associated Meetings). In this way a wide range of scientists, decision-makers and representatives of the public were able to make an important input to the Conference even if not attending the central event.

Moreover, the respected international science journal Nature contributed to the Conference process by launching a dedicated website as a source of news about preparatory events and a forum for comment on the Budapest agenda from individuals in both industrialized and developing nations.

PROGRAMME     Back to contents

The Conference programme was made up of three major forums:

  • Forum I focused on a number of scientific topics of particular relevance and discussions were organized on a cross-disciplinary basis; it addressed the intellectual, institutional and economic challenges the scientific endeavour faces today and the ample opportunities that science offers for problem-solving in the years to come;
  • Forum II examined the many interfaces between science and society at large and dealt with societal requirements and expectations, ethical issues and the public understanding of science;
  • Forum III sought an increased commitment to science by governments, policy-makers and other partners, and obligations towards society on the part of the scientific community.

Forums I and II consisted of plenary sessions at which the broad issues were aired, followed by a total of 25 smaller concurrent thematic meetings spread over two days. Synthetic texts were prepared by ICSU (Science for the Twenty-First Century : Background Document), ICSU’s Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science (Ethics and the Responsibility of Science) and by the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and the ICSU Committee on Science and Technology for Development (COSTED) (Science for Development in the South) to serve as Background Documents to the discussions in Forums I and II.

Forum III consisted of a single plenary debate at which all stakeholders in science were invited to express their views. More than 100 National Delegations and a number of NGOs and IGOs took the floor to outline their vision of science in the twenty-first century.

In addition, a Special Forum of the International Scientific Programmes on Environment and Sustainable Development of UNESCO and ICSU was organized, as well as a number of ad hoc regional meetings and other events held ‘in parallel’ to the official Conference programme to take advantage of the large numbers of Ministers, high-ranking officials and internationally recognized scientists attending the Conference. One example was the ad hoc consultation of NGOs involved in science. Many of these Parallel Meetings are expected to give fresh impetus to regional and sub-regional cooperation.

A number of satellite events involving stakeholders in science were organized by the Hungarian Local Organizing Committee. These included an International Forum of Young Scientists (23-24 June 1999), which attracted 150 young scientists and pre-scientists from 57 countries. The  Statement of the Young Scientists adopted during the Conference contains a number of recommendations that were subsequently incorporated into the Conference’s two primary documents (see below).

OUTCOME     Back to contents

Over 1800 delegates representing 155 countries, 28 IGOs and more than 60 international NGOs registered at the World Conference on Science, including approximately 80 Ministers of Science and Technology, Research and Education or their equivalents. Slightly fewer than one in four national delegates to the Conference were women. The Conference also attracted more than 250 journalists from around the world, including a team from Nature which published a daily journal throughout the six-day Conference.

The Conference provided a rare opportunity for extensive discussion leading to a new ‘social contract’ for science as we enter the twenty-first century. The participants analysed where the natural sciences stand today and where they are heading, what their social impact has been and what society expects from them. They also established what efforts should be invested to make science advance in response to both these expectations and the challenges posed by human and social development.

FOLLOW-UP    Back to contents

The rationale for all-important follow-up to the Conference by all partners and stakeholders in science, including the research community, government bodies, IGOs, NGOs and the industrial sector, is embodied in the two documents adopted by the Conference:

Although the follow-up to the Conference will be executed by many partners who will retain responsibility for their own initiatives, UNESCO will act as a clearing house in co-operation with ICSU. For this purpose, all partners in the World Conference on Science are urged to keep UNESCO abreast of their follow-up action. In turn, UNESCO and ICSU will develop - together with relevant United Nations organizations and donor bodies - concrete initiatives oriented towards strengthening international scientific cooperation,

No later than 2001, UNESCO and ICSU are to prepare jointly an analytical report to governments and international partners on the returns of the Conference, the execution of follow-up and further action to be taken.


Contact:    Back to contents
Secretariat, World Conference on Science, UNESCO
7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 PARIS, France
Fax: (33) 1 45 68 58 23
, e-mail: confsci@unesco.org

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