World Science Day: factsheet
What is science?
Science is the pursuit of an understanding of how the natural world works. There are many different types of scientists who work in variety of fields: ecologists, geologists, physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, engineers, hydrologists, biotechnologists – and the list goes on. Scientists observe the physical world to form a basis of understanding of how different processes work; e.g. a geologist study rocks and the process by which they change while a hydrologist examines water, how it moves and is distributed and what quality it has. As part of their work scientists collect evidence to test new ideas or to disprove old ones and try to find ways to improve people’s lives e.g. Earth scientists are developing better models for the prediction of earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions, while biotechnologists work to develop vaccines against diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Why is science important in peace and development?
From the struggle against disease to finding more efficient ways to use soil and water resources, the advances of science can help improve the lives of people across the world. Investment in science and technology can contribute to economic development and help create much needed jobs. Science is an essential tool in the international community’s work to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable development.
Yet the majority of the world's peoples have yet to benefit from the potential that science offers. Millions die every year from preventable diseases. Environmental degradation is having an impact on food and water supplies in many parts of the world. Roughly one in ten people in the world do not have access to safe water, one in eight is affected by hunger and 35 million people have died from HIV/AIDS since 1981. Much remains to be done to find workable solutions to ever-growing demands for energy, food and housing and improve the health of an expanding global population.
Who has access to science and technology?
Despite the enormous wealth and interconnectedness that characterise our globalised world, most of the world's scientific potential is still limited to a few countries. They alone have the financial means and human resources to conduct research in many fields, especially in advanced science.
In 2008, the Arab states and the countries in sub-Saharan Africa accounted for only 1 percent each of new scientific publications worldwide while the European Union was responsible for over 36 percent.
This situation has not always been the case. Different civilizations have over the ages contributed towards building and transmitting scientific knowledge. During the early medieval period of European history (500-1000), the centre of scientific advancement was in Baghdad, the capital of today’s Iraq. Under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty which ruled over a large empire, scientist such as Avicenna, Alhazen and al-Biruni thrived. According to the British Professor Jim Al-Khalili the advances in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and physics during this period made the later European Renaissance possible and contributed to the birth of the modern scientific method itself. In fact, for 700 years, the international language of science was Arabic.
Science - a collaborative effort
In its essence, science knows no geographical boundaries. It is the product of, and a tool for, global understanding and co-operation. Scientific collaboration is vital to ensure that data, knowledge and innovation are shared, thus enabling all countries to benefit from new discoveries and advances in scientific knowledge. International partnerships, however, needs to be combined with national capacity building. Scientific breakthroughs will not benefit people unless governments across the world have the capacity to access, adopt and implement new measures and policies through its institutions and education systems.
What does the UN do?
UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is the only UN specialised agency with a specific mandate to promote science. From basic and environmental sciences to science policy and ethics, UNESCO acts as an advocate for science globally. It enables people to participate in and benefit from the production, sharing and application of scientific knowledge.
UNESCO hosts major international programmes in the freshwater, marine, ecological, earth and basic sciences. It also facilitates international collaboration such as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) which coordinates programmes in marine research, services, observation systems, hazard mitigation, and capacity development in order to understand and effectively manage the resources of the ocean and coastal areas. A key achievement for the IOC is the establishment of a Tsunami Warning System (TWS) in the Indian Ocean following the devastating tsunami in December 2004 which killed 250, 000 people in the region. The tsunami was caused by a massive undersea earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the new early warning system is based on observation networks of seismometers (which register the strength of earthquakes) and sea level measuring stations which send real time data to national and regional warning centers. The warning centres use the information from the observation networks to decide whether to confirm or cancel a tsunami warning. However, the warnings and the science behind them are useless if the coastal communities in the region are not prepared and have received information about what to do in the case of a tsunami. The science underpinning the system can save lives only if the countries and the communities affected have the capacity to implement the policies and systems needed to make the warning system a reality.
UNESCO also works to promote gender equality in scientific research, as women are under-represented in basic scientific research as well as at higher decision-making levels. The UNESCO-L’OREAL For Women in Science programme recognise women researchers who, through the scope of their work, have contributed to overcoming the global challenges of tomorrow. This is done through international awards and international and national fellowships. Since 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards have recognised 64 laureates from 30 countries, two of who have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize.
CASE STUDY Professor Pratibha Gai – Europe L'Oréal-UNESCO Laureate 2013
Professor Gai from the University of York received the award for ingeniously modifying her electron microscope so that she was able to observe chemical reactions occurring at surface atoms of catalysts which will help scientists in their development of new medicines or new energy sources.
Some of the most groundbreaking achievements in the annals of science have been made by people who invented ways to see what cannot be seen with the naked eye. Pratibha Gai is among the relatively few scientists in history who can lay claim to such a key advancement. Her truly ingenious modifications to electron microscopes enable us to actually see chemical processes at the atomic level that were once completely mysterious. Her fundamental research promises a plethora of potential applications for an immense range of scientific, technological and economic solutions.
Photo: A member of the Malaysian Medical Unit with the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) checks test results inside the lab at Mission Headquarters in Laayoune, Western Sahara. (UN Photo/Martine Perret)