UN emblem
United Nations System-Wide
  December 2000  
    The Second

Report on International Scientific Advisory Processes on the Environment and Sustainable Development

Hyperlinked version for the Internet

Prepared for the UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination, UNEP
by Jan-Stefan Fritz

Two Types of Trends can be Observed
The number of scientific advisory bodies has increased steadily over the past decade. Table 1 illustrates the growth in permanent advisory processes serving intergovernmental purposes on some major issues. As advisory processes have become more established it has become possible to identify some characteristic trends. These trends reflect fundamental changes in the content and focus of scientific advice over the past decades. For the sake of simplicity, these trends can be divided into two types: first, general trends in the evolution of the science/policy nexus and, second, specific trends concerning particular aspects of advisory processes. The latter series of trends are presented with reference to observations made in the first Report on Scientific Advisory Processes. That Report made several observations, including the need to: establish clear expectations; encourage dialogue between scientists and policy-makers; develop capacity-building as a goal of advisory processes; counter the continued potential for duplication; support the data requirements for emerging priorities; and, improve the Internet as a source of information and as a guide to its quality. 
    Before turning to the trends themselves, it warrants noting that most are generally positive. This in turn reflects favourably on the increasing efforts being invested in advisory processes. Having said this, there is much to be done to bridge the remaining gaps. These gaps will be addressed after the trends.
    The Major Trends
General Trends

i. increasing need to balance specialized and holistic knowledge

Two broad trends can be identified in the provision of knowledge for policy-making, each consisting of two sometimes contradictory sub-elements. The first trend encompasses the increasing need for highly specialized knowledge concerning specific environmental concerns, and the simultaneous need for more holistic knowledge about biosphere dynamics. Advisory processes are increasingly required to provide advice that incorporates the newest specialist knowledge about an issue and technological advances, while being able to understand the dynamics of that issue in a broader context. Perhaps the most prominent recent example is the expertise needed to understand genetically modified organisms, while also understanding their place in a sustainable biosphere and related social practices including intellectual property rights. More broadly, the ecosystems or water basin approaches also represent a recognition that specialized knowledge is needed in terms of its organic, physical and social context. Understanding such relationships is an important reason why advisory processes are slowly moving to including more types of knowledge in their advisory functions. 
ii. A Shift from Problem Identification to Alternative Scenarios for Action
The second broad trend involves a shift in the content of scientific advice from identifying problem areas, to incorporating evaluations of technical response options and their economic feasibility, to socio-economic causes and impacts, to the present interest in suggesting alternative scenarios for effective action. Many environmental problems are now relatively well understood in terms of their basic causes and effects, while the best paths of action remain unclear. A thorough consideration of possible alternatives for action is also important where incomplete knowledge of a problem exists. Discussions on the precautionary principle in the context of biodiversity and climate change conventions have highlighted this. In future, scientific advisory processes will need to balance data presentation, policy-relevant observations, and policy options. A difficulty in this trend concerns the need to balance the roles of advisory and intergovernmental processes. This balance is particularly difficult for many advisory processes with mandates to identify environmental problems from traditional scientific perspectives. At the same time, this trend opens the door to advisory processes seeking to incorporate a broader spectrum of knowledge. 
    In any case, the move to put greater emphasis on implementation has begun. For example, the eighth session of CSD decided that Rio+10 should deal with implementation of Agenda 21. More emphatically, the Malmö Ministerial Declaration highlighted the “alarming discrepancy between commitments and actions”. Finally, the challenge of balancing the two general trends will certainly become evident in those issues identified by UNEP as being its priority areas for policy development - forests, land, water, environmental health, and urban environment. 


Biological Diversity
Oceans &
Coastal Areas
Ozone Depletion
Arid Lands
LULUC & Forests
Env'tal Health2
Touris 2
Urban Env't2
CMS (1983)
IPCC (1988)
Montreal Protocol (1989)


1  GEF-STAP  is included after its review of 1994, which established the current focal areas.

2  Environmental Health, Energy, Tourism and Urban Environment are listed here because although no central scientific advisory processes exist for these issues, recent bodies have been established which will seek to incorporate at least some scientific advice.

3  Though the Balkans Task Force is not a scientific advisory process per se, it is the first body that is mandated to provide conflict and disaster related SoE reports.

~   Denotes advisory bodies that provide advice to specific conventions, but are not tied exclusively to those conventions

Specific Trends

In addition to the general trends, a number of specific trends can be observed.  These are presented here with a view to reflecting on observations made in the first Report prepared in 1998. Since then, the following can be said to have occurred:
Improved niche definition. In general, advisory processes have more well-developed mandates, which also take into account relations with other bodies. Two examples are the improved definitions of work for SBSTA and IPCC concerning the Convention in Climate Change. Concerning desertification, the CST has begun providing substantive advice that has been well received. 
Greater dialogue between advisory processes and other communities. There is more recognition of the need to improve dialogue between the various communities involved in work related to conventions or intergovernmental deliberations. In fact, there is a growing interest in not only bridging the science-policy gap, but also the science-civil knowledge gap. 
Capacity-building as a goal of international advisory processes. The role that international advisory processes can play to mobilize domestic scientific capacity is being recognized. Some recent assessment processes are leading the way on this. However, the win/win (more domestic capacity/stronger input to MEAs) possibilities are only slowly being tapped. For example, collaboration between advisory processes and international agencies supporting domestic scientific capacity building is still limited. In light of this example, as well as declining sums in development support and increasing interest in promoting ‘synergies’, this issue deserves further attention. 
Increased coordination through substantive collaboration. Over the past few years more concerted efforts have been made to improve the ‘synergies and linkages’ between various advisory processes. These efforts recognize that coordination represents more than joint statements and must include substantive collaboration. One example of this is the rejuvenated inter-agency Ecosystem Conservation Group, which has prepared many substantive reports and is now preparing a strategic overview of environmental monitoring and assessment of ecosystems. Other examples of substantive collaboration, with good chances of leading to improved coordination, include the joint website of the biodiversity conventions, the inter-linkages meetings, and the building of linkages between the global observing systems and MEAs. 
Improved data availability for emerging priorities. Progress toward improving the availability of data to support forecasting is still slow. In isolated cases resources are being invested and positive results are emerging. One positive example is the collaborative relationship emerging between GCOS and UNFCCC. Progress is still slow on providing more detailed analyses of regional problems and their causes and impacts. 
Effective use of Internet. Over the past years website design and content has improved steadily, leading to markedly better access to information. One element that has not improved is the sense of ‘system’ among websites provided by UN and affiliated institutions. Without specific knowledge of the organization of the UN system it is difficult to find information. That is, information is not organized by issue or priority areas. As a contribution to using the Internet as a guide to information accessibility and quality, this Report has developed a table comparing information availability as provided by the activities profiled in this Report ( see Annex I).
Identifying the Information Gaps
    Despite the generally positive trends identified above, there remain many information gaps. While Agenda 21 speaks of a single gap, there are in fact a number of gaps that can be identified as being particularly problematic.
A Data Gap was identified by Agenda 21 as the gap between the availability of quality data from around the world and the needs of both national and international policymakers. While many policy statements exist calling for the strengthening of Earthwatch, few resources have actually been made available to realize a functioning and effective information collection, management and dissemination system on the state of the global environment. 
A Linkages Gap exists between the increasing number of advisory processes being founded. Although it is increasingly recognized that environmental problems can only be solved holistically, only a few ongoing collaborative efforts exist. Only one advisory process was actually mandated to produce a list of all related activities and possible avenues of collaboration. The linkages gap may widen if ‘autarkic’ advisory processes are created in future. At the latest, this will become apparent should separate advisory processes be established when intergovernmental deliberations proceed on water, land, forests, environmental health and urban environment. 
A Public Access Gap exists between the production and synthesis of knowledge and its use by a broad readership. Each year, dozens of reports are prepared by external consultants and UN staff members at great cost. These often reflect useful syntheses of current knowledge and many are of high quality. However, once the official meetings for which the reports are intended are over the reports are shelved. While most are available on the Internet, a user requires a good knowledge of the UN system to search the myriad institutions potentially supporting similar activities. No overview exists of UN supported publications and research on environment and sustainable development. This is a critical deficit in the transparency of the UN’s work. 
A Systematic Organization of Information Gap i exists resulting in an information overload and making it difficult to find information quickly about different environmental media from different perspectives. Users should be able to find information about specific problems and possible technical and policy alternatives. For example, most items included in the now popular lists of 'success stories' and 'best practices' are relevant to various conventions. However, the creation and maintenance of these lists is sporadic, preventing any overview. Lee A. Kimball has described this as the 'dual-axis dilemma' of information management: on one axis, information is needed on the full range of environmental problems; and on the other axis, information is needed on human activities and their impacts on different environmental media.
An Impact Gap exists between the work of scientific advisory activities and efforts to support local/national-level capacity building. Advisory processes harness much knowledge, which is sometimes only used for limited purposes. Located at the interface between scientific research and policymaking, advisory processes can set priorities useful to UN scientific and research support activities. While there is much talk of capacity building, there are few examples of advisory processes using their positions to assist international scientific programmes in strengthening local/national capabilities to manage national activities - thus, ultimately improving support for implementing international agreements. 
The Relevance of Adaptive Management
Adaptive Management is a term often used to describe the ideal institutional framework for addressing environment and sustainable development issues. The term is also used in the explication of the ecosystems concept by SBSTTA. At its core, adaptive management involves learning from experiences and treating actions as experiments which provide those experiences. From this perspective, policies and knowledge are continuously interactive processes of assessing, deciding, doing and evaluating. Since experiences will differ from issue to issue, there is no single model for what constitutes an ‘ideal’ advisory process. Equally, it is impossible to articulate a universally appropriate definition of advice effectiveness. Indeed, Part 1 aimed highlight the diversity of advisory processes. Having said this, one way of conceptualizing the system of scientific advice for multilateral processes is offered in Figure 1. Within that context, the Trends Section illustrated some areas of progress and improvement with the integration of scientific advice in policy-making processes. Nonetheless, information gaps remain and the Malmö Ministerial Declaration stressed the need to “improve avenues for communication between the scientific community, decision makers and other stakeholders”.ii
Bridging the Gaps as a Means of Improving Implementation

In bridging the information gaps, the aim must be support an informed shift of emphasis from achieving agreement to effective implementation. By its very nature, this shift will require much adaptive management to bring together the international community of states and their commitments in spite of the “complex and dynamic nature of ecosystems and the absence of complete knowledge or understanding of their functioning.”iii
This section seeks to complement a list of potential areas of focus during CSD-9 prepared by the UN Division for Sustainable Development with the UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination (joint task managers of Agenda 21, Chapter 40 on ‘Information for Decision-Making’). With this and the list of information gaps in mind, the following are a series of problem-solving and outcome-oriented recommendations. These recommendations are modest and realistic and can be implemented with few additional resources since they aim to strengthen what already exists. They are organized as recommendations to bridge the gaps identified in the previous section. 
Recommendations to Bridge the Information for Decision-making Gap


Improving Dialogue between Advisory Processes and Policymakers

The next UNEP Global Ministerial Forum would serve as an ideal venue to improve dialogue between providers of scientific and other knowledge and policymakers. As a Forum designed to promote strategic policy discussions and to strengthen constructive partnerships a session could be scheduled to identify types of advice that policymakers prefer, areas needing further advice in future, and reviewing success stories of past advisory processes. 



Standardizing methods and improving information harmonization to support activities in need of scientific advice and support

Harmonized processes and standardized methods in information management are useful to the extent that they serve the actual needs of some audience or specific purpose. For example, the benefit of harmonizing national reporting mechanisms of the biodiversity conventions, is that it serves to simplify the work of national governments and improve the information required under the conventions. Following this example, standardized and/or harmonized methods for managing data and information from scientific support activities (e.g. G30S and international organizations) should serve clearly identified audiences or purposes. In particular, this might include UNEP’s proposed work on disaster EWS, which must first though set its own priorities for what an operational EWS will need. 



Reversing the decline in essential observations

As shown in Part 1, earth observation systems potentially play an important support role to advisory processes in addition to being providers of 'baseline knowledge'. For this reason, there have been many recent calls to strengthen these systems with additional resources. It may also be functionally supportive to link the earth observations systems to the specific needs of advisory processes to MEAs and other relevant intergovernmental deliberations. One benefit would be to avoid the difficulty of setting priorities, as faced by past international observing systems. The priority foci should be determined by policy-making processes and applied to the scientific activities of international institutions. As discussed, this has been effectively initiated by GCOS and the Climate Change Convention. This issue might be considered during CSD-9 as part of discussions on dual-purpose observation programmes that serve both international scientific research and policymaking. 



Continuing to complement science with traditional knowledge

Rather than offering a formal proposal, this paragraph serves to stress the importance of identifying the ‘best’ information and knowledge to support policymaking. Such knowledge should come from all possible sources to serve the demand. This is an important means of bridging the gap between ‘problem identification’ and ‘proposing alternatives for implementation’. For example, the Biodiversity and Desertification conventions play important roles in determining what traditional knowledge can usefully supply and how it should be included within scientific advice for policymaking. These will set an example for future framework advisory processes dealing with broad issues, including possibly forests, land, water and environmental health. 



Supporting Effectiveness through Constructive Self-Evaluation

Many advisory processes have gone through internal review processes and the consensus seems to be that this has led to positive results. One specific result identified in the past, includes a clearer sense of expectations by policymakers and scientists, both in terms of what advice is sought and what can be plausibly delivered. Those advisory processes that have not undergone review processes should be encouraged to do so.

Recommendations to Bridge the Public Access Gap
Improving Public Access Information

In some countries public service institutions have introduced Customer Charters as means of improving services in a non-regulatory fashion. Using this as an example, it would be useful to establish a Stakeholder Charter on Minimum Standards of Information provided by UN sources on environment and sustainable development. Such a Charter would provide a non-regulatory standard to assist institutions in providing accessible and timely information. Naturally, this will take much preparatory work, but if treated as an ongoing project the benefits could be captured immediately. Some foreseeable benefits include: a clear guide to what the public can expect from the UN, increased transparency of the UN’s work, coordination is promoted without administration, and, webmasters would have a guide to preparing websites and their content. 

Improving the Use of Information Technologies to make information accessible

More effort should be made to improve accessibility to UN supported scientific and synthesis work. Many studies commissioned by the UN, UNEP and other agencies are excellent sources of information and analysis, but these are either used for a single purpose and then filed or not used at all. To improve accessibility, a UN System-Wide Web Site Locator for Environment and Sustainable Development could be established. This should be a low-maintenance, accessible, well-advertised website locator which points the way to finding documents, reports, and other relevant information. Such a site would also provide a useful mask highlighting similarities and differences in existing information sources, without formally coordinating the presentation of Internet sites. A third benefit to all information providers would be to highlight what knowledge exists and what knowledge gaps remain. The basis for such a website exists in the UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination site, which is described by the UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements as an excellent site. Moreover, a locator would contribute to implementing Earthwatch’s mandate to provide “effective, accessible and strictly non-political scientific knowledge” capable of meeting the needs of decision-makers.iv In any case, the valuable contributions of newly-established clearinghouses (eg. biodiversity and desertification) and web site linkages (eg. biodiversity) must be considered in conceiving any Locator. 

Improving Information Provision from NGOs

NGOs and related forums should be harnessed as sources of information on emerging problems and alternative means of supporting the implementation of agreements. Many NGOs have experience balancing science/civil knowledge and the need for cost-effectiveness in project implementation. This supports the recommendation made in the Report of the UN Secretary-General that "UNEP and Habitat should strengthen their systems of receiving and responding to information from non-governmental organizations, especially on emerging problems, and encourage non-governmental organizations to provide information on new problems."v

Recommendations to Bridge the Linkages Gap
Encouraging Coordination through Substantive Cooperation

There is surprisingly little competition between the various advisory processes. In fact, since publication of the first Report, there has been a marked improvement in what was identified above as niche definition. Thus, there should not be any effort to create a formal coordinating mechanism between advisory processes. Collaboration should be needs driven, ends oriented, and reflect self interest on the part of all participants. The best way of ensuring coordination amongst scientific advisory processes may be to encourage substantive collaboration. Encouraging collaborative approaches is a means of pooling resources and improving outputs; in other words, giving concrete meaning to calls for improved ‘synergies’. 

Strengthening Existing Advisory Processes to Address Emerging Issues

Existing scientific advisory processes should be supported and strengthened to address emerging issues. New scientific advisory processes should be created only when no other appropriate scientific body exists. Most emerging issues, including those identified by UNEP as policy priority areas, have scientific bodies that already exist. As issues emerge onto the policy agenda, efforts should be made to identify appropriate existing scientific bodies that could provide the necessary scientific knowledge. In other words, the system of providing scientific advice should remain decentralized. 

Creating an Ad Hoc Working Group to Identify Areas of Substantive Cooperation on Emerging Issues

To identify gaps in linkages it may be useful to establish an ad hoc, informal working group to identify areas of possible cooperation among advisory processes. This was suggested by the UNU Inter-linkages Report, and much of this role is being fulfilled by the UNU Inter-linkages Initiative. However, that Initiative has placed relatively little emphasis on scientific advisory process. Thus, a time limited, clearly defined, cost effective working group may be useful to identify areas that could benefit from increased collaboration - including UNEP’s environmental policy priority areas. Other substantive areas have been identified by the UNU Initiative and the 1998 Linkages Report referred to earlier. 

Recommendations to Bridge the Impact Gap
    Improving the Capacity of Developing Countries to Contribute to International Scientific Advisory Processes

There is a strong potential link between international advisory processes, the scientific activities of international institutions, and capacity building in developing countries. Advisory processes should be encouraged to set priorities by identifying areas needing further information from developing countries. Such priorities should be encouraged as useful guides to the scientific activities of international institutions that support capacity building. International scientific activities could assist MEAs by supporting effective National Focal Points and assisting the responsible national bodies to fulfil MEA report-writing requirements.

Recommendations on the Future of this Report
Following its publication, this Report should be formatted specifically for the Internet. The contents should then be updated regularly and all references to institutions, programmes and other activities should be hyperlinked. Instead of Profiles, an expanded Table of websites (see Annex I) could provide the necessary background information on all relevant activities. Finally, up-to-date print versions of the Report could then be made available for all relevant meetings in limited numbers. 
Further Reports should be considered on the role of advisory processes in the review of convention implementation, means of improving the participation of experts from developing countries, and the possible contributions of other knowledge types to intergovernmental deliberations. 
    Implementing the above two recommendations could serve several important purposes, including: 

to update UNEP’s webpage on Scientific Advisory Groups

a summary may be useful for UNEP, should it update its Corporate Profile (see p.14); 

an up-to-date version could be provided to CSD-9, 

it may be useful for preparing the upcoming Report of the Secretary General on Enhancing Complementarities among International Instruments related to Environment and Sustainable Development, to be prepared for the 55th UN General Assembly by UNEP, 

the UNEP meeting of Subsidiary Advisory Bodies (scheduled for Autumn 2000), and 

UNU Inter-linkages Initiative 

More generally, the Report could serve to: 

assist in the creation of new advisory processes that wish to have an immediate overview of what bodies already exist and their different experiences. 

    I would like to thank Lee A. Kimball for her very helpful contributions to Parts 3 and 4, including the suggestion to add the 'Systematic Organization of Information Gap' as a separate Information Gap. 

ii  For a detailed analysis of adaptive management understood in these terms see Kai N. Lee, Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment, Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. 

iii  For a good outline of what adaptive management entails in the international context see SBSTTA, Ecosystem Approach: Further Conceptual Elaboration, (UNEP/CBD/SBSTTA /5/11 of 23 October 1999). 

iv  For more information see: Resolution A/543/242 of 10 August 1999, adopted by the General Assembly on the Report of the Secretary-General on Environment and Human Settlements, paragraph 9; and, the Report of the Secretary-General on Environment and Human Settlements (A/53/463 of 6 October 1998), which includes as an Annex the Report of the United Nations Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements

v  Report of the Secretary General on Environment and Human Settlements (A/53/463 of 6 October 1998), paragraph 30(f).

Return to homepage

UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva