UN Observer Status - a chance to re-engage

Last week, I took part in a major UN forum for the first time since CERN was granted observer status. The occasion was ECOSOC, the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which is holding meetings in Geneva throughout July.


My role came at the beginning, with a talk at ECOSOC’s annual ministerial review on the subject of “Science, technology and innovation, and the potential of culture, for promoting sustainable development and achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.” It’s a little long-winded as session titles go, but a subject close to my heart. It allowed me to spell out key factors that I believe necessary if our global society is to thrive: the importance of science in achieving lofty goals such as those laid down by the UN; the intrinsic value of basic science in promoting general scientific literacy; the need for competition to exist side by side with cooperation; and the need for sustainability in science funding.

The Millennium Development Goals range from eradicating extreme poverty to ensuring environmental sustainability. They are more than merely political challenges: achieving them requires science. It is my firmly held belief that all regions need to step up their support for research and innovation to ensure the sustainable development necessary to drive growth, equip us to rise to the UN’s millennium challenge, and to tackle the major societal issues of our day. Eradicating poverty requires science to reduce waste and maximise yields. Environmental sustainability needs science to address issues such as energy use and to help us understand precisely how the climate is evolving.

While sustainability requires science, science requires people: people to do science, people to support science, and people to understand the nature of science. That’s where flagship projects like the LHC are so important. Not only do they give us valuable new knowledge, they also inspire people of all generations, helping to develop an appreciation of the nature and value of science, while encouraging the young to pursue scientific careers.

Science thrives on global competition coupled with global cooperation. We all benefit from sharing expertise, as the experiments at the LHC clearly demonstrate. They share knowledge while simultaneously competing strongly to get the result. After all, it is the result that counts and that benefits us all.

Finally, science itself needs sustainability, and this is where CERN has a particularly strong message for the leaders of the world today. Almost 60 years ago CERN was established thanks to the vision of politicians and scientists who recognised that the scientific cycle was much longer than political or economic cycles and that mechanisms needed to be established to ensure continuity. The result was the CERN governance model, and if proof were needed of its effectiveness, you need look no further than CERN today. We are still here, still in great health, and last year we announced a discovery that was first predicted when CERN was just 10 years old.

These are all messages that society deserves to hear. Our observer status at the UN is giving us a long overdue chance to re-engage with society at a time when science matters more than ever.

Rolf Heuer