International Council for Science

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The International Council for Science, still known by the initials of its former name, International Council of Scientific Unions or ICSU, is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that includes more than one hundred national scientific bodies and close to thirty international scientific unions. The ICSU mission is to:

  • Identify and address major issues of importance to science and society.
  • Facilitate interaction among scientists across all disciplines and from all countries.
  • Promote the participation of all scientists—regardless of race, citizenship, language, political stance, or gender—in the international scientific endeavor.
  • Provide independent, authoritative advice to stimulate constructive dialogue between the scientific community and governments, civil society, and the private sector.

The main philosophy of the organization is perhaps best reflected in section 5 of its statutes, where the principle of the universality of science is expressed:

This principle entails freedom of association and expression, access to data and information, and freedom of communication and movement in connection with international scientific activities, without any discrimination on the basis of such factors as citizenship, religion, creed, political stance, ethnic origin, race, colour, language, age or sex. ICSU shall recognize and respect the independence of the internal science policies of its National Scientific Members. ICSU shall not permit any of its activities to be disturbed by statements or actions of a political nature.


ICSU was founded in Brussels in 1931, originally under the name International Council of Scientific Unions. It emerged as an extension of two earlier bodies, the International Association of Academies (1899–1914) and the International Research Council (1919–1931). The main change brought about through the founding of ICSU was the dual membership: Both national scientific bodies (initially forty) and international scientific unions (initially eight) make up the membership, and the unions received a more prominent and independent role.

World War II marked an interruption in ICSU activities. But after the war ICSU was the first NGO with which the newly founded United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) signed an agreement.

In light of wartime experiences and the new political prominence of science and technology, Joseph Needham (1900–1995), then Head of the Natural Sciences Division of the Preparatory Commission of UNESCO, addressed the ICSU Committee on Science and Its Social Relations, outlining the prospects of postwar scientific cooperation. This was discussed during ICSU's London General Assembly of 1946, and the first agreement between UNESCO and a non-governmental organization, i.e. ICSU, was signed shortly thereafter. Topics discussed included a plea for the elimination of military secrecy, a hope for increased international collaboration in applied science especially with regard to atomic power, a request for scientific "frankness, openness and integrity" so as to promote the common good, and advancement of the public understanding of science.

During the ensuing cold war period a new challenge emerged within the ICSU structure, namely the free circulation of scientists across national borders. Prewar ICSU statements already expressed the universality of science. For instance, in 1934, ICSU president George Ellery Hale proclaimed: "We welcome to our meetings the man of science in all countries and we appreciate the opportunity to join with them in the pursuit of our common object" (Greenaway 1996, p. 93). With the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, however, realities became very different. For instance, East German scientists were refused visas for entry into NATO countries thus effectively blocking their participation in scientific meetings in these countries.

In 1963 ICSU formed the Standing Committee on the Free Circulation of Scientists (SCFCS), which in 1993 was renamed the Standing Committee on Freedom in the Conduct of Science and given an expanded mandate. The work of this committee became increasingly important as political tensions increased. The SCFCS worked primarily by correspondence contact with key persons in countries that either prevented entry or exit of individual scientists. The balance between safeguarding free scientific communication and keeping a politically neutral position was always a delicate one, and necessitated low-key action. By and large, the SCFCS managed to fill its watchdog role. In 1976 the SCFCS published its first edition of the "blue book," which is currently entitled "Universality of Science" and contains the principles pertaining to the rights of scientists and their freedom of movement.


The main decision-making body within ICSU is the General Assembly, which convenes every three years at various locations around the world upon invitation from a host country. Currently the General Assembly is assisted by an Executive Board, which consists of six executive officers and eight ordinary members, four from the unions and four from national members. The Executive Board is assisted by a permanent Secretariat, headed by an executive director.

Since 1972 the ICSU Secretariat has been based in Paris with French government support. A small structure was built up under the leadership of Julia Marton-Lefèvre (1978–1997) and has become a cornerstone in ICSU activities. Since 2002 ICSU has been headed by Thomas Rosswall as executive director. Compared to other international bodies or to its national members, the ICSU Secretariat of twelve people is strikingly small in size.


ICSU activities are varied and have changed character over the years. Some of its activities serve as examples of international scientific cooperation, despite political situations that at times seem to render them impossible. One such example was the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957–1958, which involved sixty-seven nations. The IGY established the principle that "expeditions and explorations in the remoter parts of the earth are now geophysical in intention" (Greenaway 1996, p. 156). An International Polar Year is planned for 2007–2008.

ICSU also engaged in other areas of common concern for international science. ICSU in 1966 set up its interdisciplinary Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) aimed at making scientific data of various kinds accessible to scientists beyond their origin. In 1969 the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) was established to plan and facilitate, among other things, a global monitoring network and a training program for future environmental managers. SCOPE contributed to the Untied Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972 and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), which was initiated in 1986.

Such activities strengthened the ICSU role in the area of global environment and development, and led to close collaboration with various UN bodies. The International Conference on an Agenda of Science for Environment and Development into the 21st Century (ASCEND 21), held in Vienna in 1991, contributed to "Agenda 21: Science for Sustainable Development," the major document to emerge from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (commonly called the Earth Summit). When the follow-up World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg in 2002, ICSU was again among the key NGOs addressing scientific issues.

ICSU now sponsors three global observing systems (GOS)—the Global Ocean Observing System, the Global Climate Observing System, and the Global Terrestrial Observing System—in collaboration with partner organizations such as UNESCO, the World Meteorological Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the United Nations Environment Programme. The goal of the GOS is improved monitoring of the global Earth system.

ICSU links with the social sciences and engineering remain relatively weak. Of the member unions in ICSU, four can be counted as belonging to the social sciences, among them the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS). Already during the 1980s and early 1990s it was recognized that the global problems facing humankind required cooperative efforts from scientists, social scientists, and engineers. Efforts were made to bring these various fields together through closer cooperation between ICSU and the International Social Science Council (ISCC). In 1996, then, ICSU, ISCC, and other organizations became cosponsors of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), originally established in 1990. In the early 2000s the IHDP, IGBP, and related programs were brought together under the banner of the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) to promote international and interdisciplinary research within four focal areas: carbon, food, water, and human health. It remains to be seen how the challenge of multi- and interdisciplinarity across the various fields will be met in practice.

Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics of Science (SCRES)

At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s under the presidency of M. G. K. Menon the ICSU Executive Board took up issues of the ethics of science. Two observations spurred this discussion. First, previous views that simply identified progress in science with social progress were more and more difficult to uphold. In the light of environmental and developmental issues, science was seen as not only part of the solution but to some extent as part of the problem. Second, scientific activities need to be guided by a sense of social responsibility. While ICSU already had established a mechanism to deal with the rights (freedom) of scientists, it lacked a platform to deal effectively with scientific responsibilities.

Following these discussions IUHPS was contacted for further suggestions on how to deal with this challenge. L. Jonathan Cohen (Oxford University), then secretary-general of ICSU and member of IUHPS, and Jens Erik Fenstad (University of Oslo), member of the Executive Board and former president of IUHPS, were among the driving forces in this effort. In collaboration with ICSU a workshop in London on ethical issues in science was arranged by Philip Kitcher (Columbia University) and Nancy Cartwright (London School of Economics and Political Science) in 1994 on behalf of the Philosophy of Science section of IUHPS (with contributions eventually published in Perspectives on Science, 1996). IUHPS then focused its activities on ethics of science, leading to a special session on this topic during the 1995 International Congress on Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science in Florence, Italy (see Dalla Chiara et al. 1997). As a general outcome of these activities ICSU set up an informal working group that proposed a Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics of Science (SCRES). This proposal was endorsed by the General Assembly in Washington, DC, in 1996.

The remit of SCRES included:

  • to act as a focus within ICSU and with outside partners for questions pertaining to scientific responsibility and ethics;
  • to clarify issues of moral principle which affect the choice of policies for scientific research …;
  • to raise awareness of important ethical issues among scientists, policy makers and the general public … (ICSU documents GA 1996)

An offer from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters led to SCRES being based in Oslo and sharing offices with the National Committees for Research Ethics.

SCRES was a small committee, compared with the more established Standing Committee on Freedom in the Conduct of Science, and it struggled to define its agenda. This took a new turn in the planning of the World Conference on Science (WCS) that was jointly hosted by ICSU and UNESCO in Budapest, Hungary, in 1999. Cooperation with the UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) led to a special WCS session on "Science, Ethics and Responsibility." Indeed, SCRES prepared a WCS background document that was one of only two such documents distributed to all speakers, chairs, and rapporteurs (ICSU-SCRES 2000).

The WCS also placed a new topic on the SCRES agenda. The WCS keynote speech of Joseph Rotblat (b. 1908), the Polish-born physicist and international activist, called for a universal oath or pledge to be taken by scientists when receiving a degree in science. Such a "Hippocratic oath" would make explicit the commitment to social responsibility in science. This proposal spurred intense discussions, and while it proved impossible to include Rotblat's suggestion in the final endorsed documents of the WCS, section 3.2 of the "Science Agenda—Framework for Action" calls for COMEST and SCRES to follow up with a view to encourage young scientists to "respect and adhere to the basic ethical principles and responsibilities of science."

In response, SCRES produced a study of 115 ethical guidelines and codes of ethics that was presented to the ICSU General Assembly at its Rio de Janeiro meeting in 2002. At the same time SCRES presented an evaluation of its own activities and suggested that ICSU reconsider how best to place the ethics of science within its structure. SCRES pointed out that a body of its kind and structure could not meet the expectations expressed in its remit, especially regarding public awareness of science and society issues. Its impact remained peripheral, perhaps with the exception of China where SCRES activities spurred a major influence at the national level.

SCRES furthermore suggested that a better balance be found for ad hoc activities directed at special areas of wide ethical interest and addressed through cooperation with other partners, while retaining the continuity and identity that a standing committee can provide. ICSU was asked to consider whether a revised and renewed SCFCS with an explicit mandate for ethics might not be a better framework. As a result SCRES was dissolved in 2002, and ICSU established a strategic review committee to work out suggestions for the future of ethics within ICSU. While the importance of ethics of science is widely recognized by many of the ICSU members and by the Executive Board, ICSU still needs to find its own profile in this area that would not duplicate activities of other bodies, but at the same time provide a voice for global and international concerns.


SEE ALSO American Association for the Advancement of Science;Nongovernmental Organizations;Pugwash Conferences;Royal Society.


Cetto, Ana María, ed. (2000). World Conference on Science: Science for the Twenty-First Century, A New Commitment. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Dalla Chiara, Maria Luisa; Kees Doets; Daniele Mundici; and Johan van Benthem, eds. (1997). The Tenth International Congress of Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, Florence, August 1995, Vol. 2: Structures and Norms in Science. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

Greenaway, Frank. (1996). Science International: A History of the International Council of Scientific Unions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

International Council for Science. (1996). ICSU documents GA 1996: ICSU Report 25th General Assembly of ICSU (26GA/99/3.1, point 9.c), and Resolutions of the 25th General Assembly of ICSU, 25GA/99/3.1.i, point 11, and Recommendation to establish a standing Committee on Responsibility and ethics in science, 25/GA/96/9.3.

International Council for Science (ICSU). Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science (SCRES). (2000). "Ethics and the Responsibility of Science: Background Paper for the World Science Conference." Science and Engineering Ethics 6(1): 131–142.

Kitcher, Philip, and Nancy Cartwright. "Science and Ethics: Reclaiming Some Neglected Questions." Perspectives on Science 4(2).


International Council for Science. Available from

"Science Agenda—Framework for Action." United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Available from

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