A stronger base for the social and natural sciences, and for interdisciplinary collaborations

Following an initial correspondence between ISSC President Alberto Martinelli and International Council for Science (ICSU) President Gordon McBean, the executive bodies of ISSC and ICSU decided to form a joint Working Group (WG) to explore scenarios of closer institutional alignment between the two councils. We interviewed Alberto Martinelli to find out more about this important process.

Q1. Can you tell us more about the mandate of the joint WG?

 Alberto Martinelli – The working group was mandated to explore scenarios of closer institutional alignment and the possible amalgamation of the two councils. It follows much successful collaboration between ISSC and ICSU, which has increased in recent years around Future Earth and the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) programme, but also in different consultative UN processes, where ICSU and ISSC have worked together to mobilize the science and technology community.

There is no doubt in my mind that the challenges human society is facing today call for more science, and continuing as separate entities is restricting our capacity to respond to those challenges. Most global priority issues cannot be dealt with by the social or natural sciences alone. They call for greater collaboration and inputs from various disciplines. One of the central questions posed to the WG was: what kind of institutional arrangements can we develop that would allow for more effective collaborations between the natural and social sciences where required, and would strengthen the voice of science at the global level?

Q2. After two meetings of the WG, the two executive bodies decided unanimously to recommend to their members the creation of a new, single organization for the social and natural sciences. What led the ISSC Executive Committee to this recommendation?

 Alberto Martinelli – The WG examined several different scenarios, but we soon recognized that the creation of a single, new organization offered the most opportunities for development. It would enhance our capacity to mobilize relevant expertise to address priority problems at the global level. It would build a stronger base for the social and natural sciences, and for interdisciplinary collaborations. It would foster greater visibility, capacity, and impact for all of science, and reinforce the dialogue between science, policy and practice. It would serve to create and to strengthen existing pathways linking knowledge with action for effective societal responses to global priority challenges, the motto of ISSC.

The implications of a merger for the social science communities are taken seriously. The possible concern that the social science members could be marginalized within the new, larger organization was discussed, and the response is very positive. The spirit between the two organizations is very open and collaborative. There is positive recognition from the ICSU leadership of the contributions of the social sciences to addressing the challenges that our world confronts. Over the past few years, the ISSC and ICSU have proved that they can collaborate effectively, and that they are stronger when they speak and act with one voice. Now is the time to take the next step.

Q3. The suggested schedule for the whole process runs until 2018. When and how can ISSC and ICSU members contribute and shape the process over that period?

 Alberto Martinelli – The process we foresee is divided into three stages over two and a half years, each culminating in a consultation and vote of the members in a joint general assembly (GA). The forthcoming ISSC GA – which takes place between October 24th and 26th 2016 in Oslo – will afford ICSU members the opportunity to interact with our members and to hold an extraordinary ICSU GA. There, members of both councils will be asked to consider the merger recommendation and to agree – in principle – to pursue it. We will also discuss a planning framework for building the new organization, which members will receive in July. The draft planning framework will include recommended options on all important strategic, governance and organizational issues, so that the outlines of the new organization will be clear to everyone. The document will cover the implications of the proposed merger for both councils’ members and activities.

If the merger and planning framework are approved, the two councils will take the next nine months to develop detailed transition plans and a strategy, and to suggest a name for the new organization. These plans and strategy will be submitted to members in July 2017, and discussed by the members at the ICSU GA in October 2017 – which will also become an extraordinary assembly of ISSC – effectively the second joint GA.

The third and last phase would be implementation. If the detailed transition plans get accepted by members at the 2017 GA, then implementation will start immediately. The two councils will meet again by October 2018 at the latest, this time at an extraordinary GA to elect jointly the members of the executive body of the new organization. It is important to note that we will recommend that all current ISSC and ICSU members will be entitled to become founding members of this stronger more representative global science organization.

Q4. From 1 to 3 June 2016, ISSC members are being asked to extend the mandate of the current Executive Committee until October 2018 at the latest. What’s the reason for this extraordinary measure?

Alberto Martinelli – There was a strong sense among the WG that success would depend on having continuity of leadership over the whole process, in order to ensure stability and the quality in the good working relationships that have been established between the ISSC Executive Committee and ICSU’s Executive Board. All ExCo members are actually eligible for re-election, in their current or another position. Bringing in a new ExCo would entail time to understand the organization, and to build trust among themselves and with the ICSU Executive Board. This is time that would be lost for the merger process and that might ultimately jeopardise it. The ICSU Executive Board will request a similar extension (of one year) at their GA in 2017, and we want to avoid having new executives serving only truncated mandates essentially to deal with merger-related matters. The ISSC is somewhat disadvantaged by the calendar, because our GA is this year, and hence we are forced to decide on an extension of the mandate before having had the discussion on the merger.

What should be clear to all members, is that we are certainly not doing this to prolong our mandates unduly. The extension is on condition of the approval of the merger: if members do not approve the principle of the merger in October, the question of the elections will then be revisited. This is a historic moment that requires bold leadership to shape a new global organization that fully represents all of science. In so doing, we will be changing historic perceptions and opening up silos, in order to better serve society’s needs.