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The role of science on the world stage

Maurizio Bona comments the celebration of CERN’s 60th anniversary at UN Headquarters in New York on 20 October


Following the celebration of CERN’s 60th anniversary at UN Headquarters in New York on 20 October, Maurizio Bona comments on the event’s success and looks forward to the future relationship between the two institutions.

As mentioned in a previous article in the Bulletin, CERN’s hope for this event was that it would trigger more effective dialogue between scientists and policy-makers and would produce concrete ideas of how to include science when it comes to decisions that influence our future and that of our planet. Over the preceding months, this idea had been discussed with all the UN partners involved in the organisation of the meeting: the VIPs, the various ambassadors and the speakers.

As engineers, physicists and technicians know well, CERN plays an active role in many networks and holds a well-established position at the heart of the international research community. Our Organization’s reputation is also extremely good among non-specialists: people are eager to visit CERN and increasingly show an interest in knowing more about us, through traditional initiatives as well as through more modern means made available by digital technology. However, I must say that the general feedback received so far on our cooperation initiatives with the multilateral international community goes well beyond simple generic interest. The UN shows us not just support, but vivid curiosity and enthusiasm, and encourages CERN to provide its input on subjects that pertain to our sphere of action. CERN’s input is welcomed and very much respected, as it comes from an Organization that not only discusses science but that also does science at the highest level and that, moreover, does not belong to the UN System. This introduces an element of complementarity with the UN’s activities in promoting science, scientific education and technology.

The event in New York took place in the core working period of the General Assembly, which lasts from mid-September to mid-December. Despite the fact that on 20 October several General Assembly meetings were scheduled at the same time as the CERN event, the heads of the three “pillars” of the United Nations - the Secretary-General, the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) - decided to participate in our event, which was also attended by a large number of Permanent Representatives of the UN Member States, including some from developing countries. Their presence in the audience as well as their contribution to the discussion are clear signs of the high opinion that the UN has of CERN and of the role that our Organization can play in supporting and possibly improving some of the major “non-political” UN initiatives.

How can we make good use of this support? Advocating more science for all is not CERN’s core mission, some may say, and this is true. But we now know that people and institutions, including the world of multilateral relations, look at us as an inspiring model and as an institution that can contribute concretely to important international initiatives. CERN is being asked to play a new role by potential partners who belong to worlds often distant from that of scientific research. To quote Martin Sajdik, President of ECOSOC: “This special event marks the continuation of ECOSOC’s review of the theme of science, technology and innovation in promoting sustainable development and the Council’s close collaboration with CERN in that regard. [With this event,] we have reaffirmed that science is a powerful force for good. Scientific and technological education, as well as basic research, is essential to ensure the protection of the environment and to improve the welfare of citizens, especially in developing countries.”

Now that we better understand our role in society, we should act on it by championing the values that form the basis of our work: neutrality, inclusion and co-operation. Moreover, the appreciation expressed by Member States for closer and more effective cooperation between CERN and the UN System is not only based on principles, but also on the understanding that synergies developed by joint CERN/UN initiatives (e.g. the UNOSAT/UNITAR project hosted by CERN, knowledge transfer initiatives with various UN Agencies, the Schools organised with UNESCO in developing countries, etc.) are a more effective way to invest taxpayers’ money in development, for the collective benefit of humanity.

At the event, we heard Kofi Annan say: “As we consider how to maintain the momentum of the Millennium Development Goals and prepare the post-2015 development agenda, this [CERN’s] model of international collaboration should be emulated by others.” The vast majority of the large audience - we were told that it is quite unusual for the UN to have so many people at such an event - stayed until the end of the event, which went on longer than scheduled. The eminent panelists replied to questions from the international diplomatic audience and everybody seemed to enjoy the discussions and to find them useful.

What comes next? Given the strong commitment of the CERN Management to these initiatives, we will continue to foster relationships with international organisations, and in particular with the UN System. The strategic objective is to bring science, and scientific education, to the top of the diplomatic agenda as much as we can. Important milestones are ahead of us: Beijing+20, Rio+20, and the process for the definition of the UN’s post-2015 development agenda, which will include sustainable development goals and targets. CERN is being called upon to take part in all of these, in addition to providing its input and concrete support based on its knowledge in fields such as scientific and technical education, data handling and preservation, and knowledge transfer.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, after paying tribute to the scientific achievements of CERN, expressed appreciation for CERN's cooperation with the UN and stated “(…) I invite CERN to strengthen its engagement with the UN System”. I think this is an opportunity for our Organization, which will also contribute towards convincing the Member States that the money they invest at CERN is well spent, both for the scientific results it produces and for the benefits generated in other fields, including the social, cultural and economic growth of society.