Päivi Tikka

Unesco promotes the role of science and research globally

21 Jan 2022

What does an intergovernmental giant have to offer to the scientific community of a single member state? Quite a lot, actually. The decisions and policies of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, have a great deal of weight. After all, they represent the shared view of 193 member states. Unesco’s most recent decisions concerning science are related to recommendations on open science and the ethics of artificial intelligence.

The 41st session of the General Conference of Unesco was held in Paris in November 2021. The most anticipated science-related decisions were the first global normative frameworks on open science and the ethics of artificial intelligence. They include enough objectives for even the most progressive countries.

Equal access to research data reduces global inequality

Unesco’s Recommendation on Open Science considers openness in the broad sense, and progressively. The text is written with an emphasis on the international dimension – which is understandable, as it sets the first global recommendation on open science. According to the recommendation, the opportunities for international cooperation and the quality of research will be improved by making scientific publications immediately accessible upon publication and research data as widely available as possible. Open access to information and data helps us deal with the complex problems of our time, as demonstrated by the global scientific community’s rapid response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

What distinguishes the Unesco recommendation from previous declarations on open science is the scope and diversity of its perspectives. The recommendation is comprehensive, universal, and it takes a decisively human-rights-based approach. Equal access to research data reduces global inequality. By breaking the cycle where opportunities to do research are based on professional status and available financial resources, open science also improves the position of early-career researchers and promotes gender equality.

The open science practices adopted by the Academy of Finland are well in line with Unesco’s recommendation. Academy-funded research projects are required, among other things, to make their peer-reviewed publications immediately accessible. The practice is also in line with the international Plan S initiative and Finland’s national policy on open access to scholarly publications. As regards open access to research data, the Academy of Finland requires compliance with the international FAIR principles.

First-ever global standard on ethics of AI

Unesco’s Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence addresses the important question of the values and ethical principles to be observed in the use of constantly expanding AI systems. It sets the first global normative framework in this area. We have not had guidelines with which to address the development, research and application of AI from an ethical and human-oriented perspective.

The extensive and multidimensional recommendation provides Unesco member states with a number of concrete guidelines for actions. In the development and use of AI-based systems, for instance, thorough ethical impact assessments must be carried out. Different perspectives ranging from the environment, education and research to culture, the media, gender equality and working life must also be taken into account. On the whole, the recommendation has a strong human rights basis.

The relevance of the recommendation is highlighted by the fact that civil societies and scientific communities around the world have woken up to both the opportunities created by AI and the challenges it poses. Even the Strategic Research Council, the independent funding body established within the Academy of Finland, has decided to launch a research programme called Security and Trust in the Age of Algorithms. The programme’s call for letters of intent closed on 12 January 2022. The programme focuses, among other things, on hybrid influencing, power politics and the erosion or building of trust between individuals and institutions in the age of artificial intelligence.

National Commissions help Unesco to stay in touch with its member states

Through its National Commissions, Unesco has a direct line of contact with experts and topical debates in its member states. The role of the National Commissions is defined in Unesco’s Constitution. In Finland, the members of the National Commission are appointed by the Government. A National Commission serves as an advisory and collaborative body that, for instance, issues opinions on decisions taken by Unesco’s General Conference and administrative bodies. National Commissions also participate in various preparatory tasks.

In addition, a large number of other experts participate in Unesco’s multi-dimensional duties. Experts from the Academy of Finland are involved in the activities of the national coordination group for Unesco’s science programmes. The goal of Unesco’s science programmes is to promote research in selected thematic areas: examples include the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) and the Man the Biosphere Programme (MAB). The promotion of science diplomacy has been set as a specific objective for the programmes.

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