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Address delivered during FORUM III

by Professor Kurt PAWLIK
President, International Social Science Council (ISSC),

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‘Science in and for Society’, the target topic of this historic World Conference on Science under the aegis of UNESCO, directly addresses that sector of science which deals with society at all levels, from the individual to the collective - from individual experience and behavioural through societal processes up to national and international action. The International Social Science Council (ISSC) is the nongovernmental organization of this very sector of science: the social and behavioural sciences.

Structured in parallel to ICSU, the ISSC provides for two kinds of membership:

  • Member Associations: that is world organizations (often called unions) in each of the social sciences, i.e. law, economics, geography, psychology, sociology, anthropology/ethnology, political science, administrative science, public opinion research, peace research, scientific study of population, or mental health;
  • Member Organizations: that is national or regional social science research councils, academies or equivalent bodies.

At present the ISSC has 14 Member Associations and 16 Member Organizations. In addition, another 16 more specialized international or regional associations hold Associate Membership status. In all, the ISSC presently comprises a total of 46 national, regional and global disciplinary social science organizations, which represent the world-wide social science community.

With this resourceful background, the ISSC stands ready to play an active and supportive role and contribute to the Budapest Agenda for Science and its striving to be of service to humankind. Even more so, advance in socio-behavioural science knowledge and its application for the betterment of human life quality promise to become a priority goal in itself when it comes to applying science in the years to come. For example: According to a recent World Health Organization report, more than one-third of the global burden of illness is actually behavioural in nature (in causation and preventive-therapeutic profile) rather than bio-medical. (The acquired immune-deficiency syndrome AIDS may suffice as an example.) This puts new emphasis also on mental health and on clinical dimensions in the social sciences. Global environmental and social change, globalization of industry and economics, the new information age, or demographic changes predicted for the years to come are further accents highlighting the urgency, the need, and the opportunities for bringing social science knowledge to bear in coping with number-one challenges of our time.

Some of you may ask: True enough - but why call upon social sciences, aren't we experienced enough already, each one of us through her/his personal biographic experience and cultural heritage, to find proper ways and means to deal with such challenges?

There can only be one answer, decisively and vehemently expressed, NO! All too often personal life experience will not prove sufficient.

The proof is ample and alarming: The fearful war history of this century, as it comes to a close, with its horrifying incidents of inter-ethnic conflict and oppression, or the increasing inequality in access to resources, commodities and information clearly speak for themselves. In these cases and up until most recently, societal action and political decision remained largely devoid of social science knowledge and of social-science-based methodology of intervention - surely due to many factors, among them also some lack of ability, on the part of social scientists, to bring their knowledge to bear and make it available.

With more time available, I could provide you with numerous examples of compelling evidence that social and behavioural science knowledge clearly transcend beyond everyday-life experience and presumed wisdom. In the first place, social science knowledge can help to resolve conflicting assumptions about human behaviour or about how society will work. More often though, social science research findings actually contradict common beliefs and presuppositions.

For example: there is extensive research data available on the so-called risky-shift phenomenon. It refers to the fact that, under certain situational and task conditions, consensus decisions taken by interactive groups will be more risky, show greater readiness to accept potential threats than decisions on comparable issues taken by the same persons individually. Practical applications are immediately obvious: In designing group decision procedures one must guard explicitly against conditions favouring the occurrence of this risky-shift phenomenon!

My other example comes from so-called cognitive dissonance research: Why would a person, who is well familiar with lung cancer risks from smoking, continue to smoke two packages of cigarette per day? Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance research has given rise to a wealth of research findings on how persons would re-define goals and values and adjust subjective credibility of information sources so as to maintain a certain behaviour in the light of conflicting motives and information. What looked like an unexplainable paradox thus becomes understandable and even predictable through social science research. Again the practical relevance and applications are immediately obvious.

Mr. Chairman: the time is ripe, after all, to join knowledge and means of all the sciences, natural and socio-behavioral and human, for the betterment of the condité humaine in the years ahead. Drawing lines of distinction between sciences rather than striving for universality across them is not only out-dated heuristically but also counter-productive in pragmatic terms. Real-world problems and challenges do not come by disciplines; and many challenges of the time are much more akin to problem-solving capacities on the part of social-behavioral sciences. Over and above such disciplinary contributions, the social-behavioral sciences can become instrumental also for a better understanding of public expectations and demands vis-a-vis the world of science at large, one of the overriding themes of this Conference. May this 1999 World Conference on Science prove a new starting point towards conjoint attempts of all the sciences to develop, as a follow-up to the days in Budapest, a new and just framework of action and an agenda that will put human needs and demands as a top-priority. The social sciences, the ISSC stand ready to be an active partner in this undertaking!


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