Saturday, April 03, 2010

How has science changed since UNESCO was founded?

One of the ways cultures change is that the meanings of words change. Some time ago I posted some thoughts on the changes of the meaning of the word "culture" since UNESCO was created in 1945. This posting is on the changes in the meaning of "science" since UNESCO was created.

I perceive from the Wikipedia article on Science that there would be little difference from the beginning to the end of the 65 year history of UNESCO in the decision as to whether a specific individual in a specific activity was a scientist doing science. While the term "scientist" dates only from the first half of the 19th century, and while there continues to be debate on exactly what constitutes the scientific method, "(b)y the twentieth century (1900s), the modern notion of science as a special kind of knowledge about the world, practiced by a distinct group and pursued through a unique method, was essentially in place."

Since Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, achieved such wide distribution and acceptance it has been recognized that science is a social enterprise with scientists working in communities defined by common paradigms. In this sense it is possible to consider "science" as the term labeling the collection of these communities and their paradigms.

In this latter sense, science has indeed changed radically in the last 65 years.
  • There are many more scientists today.
  • The geography of science has changed radically. The period encompassing World War I and World War II had seen science change from a Eurocentric enterprise to one in which probably half of the world's scientists worked in North America. Since 1945, European science has returned to comparable strength with that of North America, Asian science is moving toward that status, and scientific communities have developed also in Latin America and Africa.
  • Not only have there been paradigm shifts in many if not all of the communities existing in 1945, new paradigms such as genomics and computer science have been developed.
  • New scientific institutions have been created, including not only new formal scientific organizations and societies, but informal institutions such as Internet mediated scientific networks.
  • The linkages of science and the wider society have strengthened, including a much stronger linkage of science and technology and a growing linkage of science based policy.
UNESCO's science program has evolved over the decades since the organization was founded. The natural science program includes a facet dealing with the basic sciences, but focuses more on natural sciences oriented toward understanding natural resources -- hydrology, oceanography, geology, ecology. there is also a social science program -- the Management of Social Transitions. In keeping with European continental practice, UNESCO had defined a Social and Human Sciences program which includes social sciences, but also includes activities in fields such as philosophy, ethics and even sports.

Most of the elements of the natural science program have been in place for decades. I find it surprising that UNESCO does not seem to have a strong program in neurobiology, psychology and cognitive science given that these are both developing rapidly and strongly related to the organization's efforts in education and communications and information. Similarly, one might have expected a program in computer and information science, but such a program does not seem to exist. UNESCO at one time included the MIRCEN program which established an international network of centers dealing with microbiology. Even as the field of microbiology has exploded, spinning off important technologies for medicine, agriculture and industry, UNESCO has dropped that program.

Of course, UNESCO is only one of a plethora of United Nations organizations. It presumably defers to the World Health Organization in the area of health and biomedical sciences, to the Food and Agricultural Organization in areas such as agricultural, veterinary and food sciences, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in the field of industrial sciences.

Still, one may question why the UNESCO science program has not been more vigorous in expanding its science programs. Surely one answer is the perennial financial problems of the organization and the competition for resources with UNESCO's important education program, it popular cultural programs, and its Communication and Information program which is responding to the Information Revolution.

Perhaps another reason is the success of the international scientific organizations which it helped start or support, such as the International Council on Science, the Trieste System, and CERN.

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