Science and International Agreements

Science and International Agreements

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into science and International Agreements. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary, Professor Andrew Miller and the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands, with the assistance of a number of Fellows with considerable experience in this area.

In responding to the inquiry, the RSE has focused on the following question:

What role does the scientific community in the United Kingdom play in contributing to the scientific input used in formulating, applying and implementing international agreements, and how might that role be enhanced?

Organisations such as Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Affiliated Biosciences Forum, and the sub-committees of the Royal Society, such as the UK- Scientific Committee on Ocean Research, prepare position papers, working groups, and policy comment which are submitted to the relevant lead agencies in the UK. At the international level, such documents go to organisations such as the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). Should a working group develop, individuals may be called on to serve on the committee, again through a peer-review recognition system. There is, however, little or no direct link between the research strategy of the science community and UK Government science policy in the international arena.

Broadly speaking, all negotiations on these treaties are handled by civil servants. The Government might take one or two specialists from the Governmental agencies with them to meetings but it is rare for people from the University and Institute sectors to be involved, either at meetings, or prior to meetings when the UK's position and approach might be discussed. UK scientists do, however, play a significant role at the request of other bodies, such as the EU and Non Governmental Organisations. There is, therefore, a missed opportunity, and tremendous scope for the UK government to involve a wider cross-section of UK scientists in formulating the UK's position on international agreements. The RSE would welcome the opportunity of discussing how the expertise amongst its Fellowship could be harnessed to provide greater scientific input to the international agreements.

One particular issue for Scotland relates to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Because the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) takes the lead for the international dimensions of the CBD (which is not devolved) and mainly meets in and around London and often forget that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have scientific establishments.. Furthermore it means that the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department appears to be less interested in the CBD than it might otherwise be. Even for activities relating to Scotland, such as the implementation of the CBD's recent Global Plant Conservation Strategy, DEFRA takes the lead in setting up consultation processes in the UK and these also often happen in London It is perhaps the case that Scotland needs a focal point, or mechanism, for feeding into international biodiversity issues more strongly. The purpose would be to channel effective advice and support into DEFRA to help them better fulfil their role.

In addition, in connection with official participation in meetings, it may seem a reasonable assumption that the wider public sector, including Non Departmental Public Bodies, all work in the same way and have resources to take part in such meetings. However, they do not. This can lead to a reduced range of scientific input to international meetings, as in the case of meetings of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) which advises the EU on levels of fishing. It would be helpful if the lead Government department could budget for all participants in official delegations as well as other scientists who might be required to attend on an ad-hoc basis, whether they are mainstream civil servants or not. However, it would be wrong if this led to only including Government personnel in future delegations.

Some central facilities for scientists, e.g. CERN and the European Syncrotron are set up thanks to intergovernmental agreements which have some input from researchers in universities and national government laboratories. Sometimes, as in the case with the collaboration of French scientists in the UK Diamond syncrotron project, the scientists can become enthusiasts for a particular result. In the UK, the input of researchers is usually reflected through the relevant Research Council.

Additional Information

In responding to this consultation the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Devolution and Science (April 1999); inquiry into Devolution: inter-institutional relations in the United Kingdom (March 2002).


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