Science Advice in International Treaty Organisations

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Accessed from:, on 10 September 2014. Public Domain.
The 2009-H1N1 influenza virus. Influenza is a key area in which multiple international organisations are making use of scientific networks and science advice.

This piece was submitted by Catherine Rhodes, Research Fellow in Science Ethics, Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, UK.

Science Advice in International Treaty Organisations

Many international organisations* routinely seek and make use of information and advice from the scientific community. The mechanisms through which they do this vary, but are used to support their operation and the development and implementation of treaties and standards.

“In everything we do, WHO relies on the expertise of hundreds of formal WHO Collaborating Centres… and thousands of the best brains in science, medicine and public health, in your countries. They give us their time freely and it is my strong impression that they do so with pride.” Director-General’s Address to the World Health Assembly, 16 May 2011.

This post provides brief reflections on the types of scientific advice mechanisms that are currently used by international organisations and the ways in which the global work of government science advisors might support them.

When trying to improve international science advice, it is worth being aware of what already exists for several reasons, including:

Avoiding duplication of effort. There are often limited resources available for the provision of scientific advice, so it’s worth being aware of what is already being done, and coordinating with relevant projects / processes where possible.

Understanding support needs. There may be topics that you are working on and networks of expertise you link into that can provide knowledge and resources of value to existing processes.

Awareness of gaps and weaknesses. While many international organisations have some mechanisms for accessing scientific advice, these can be very limited, often due to resource constraints.

Care over jurisdiction and resourcing issues. International organisations are sometimes reluctant to cooperate on issues of common interest, partly because of concerns over jurisdiction. They may be competing for scarce resources and may not want to ‘lose’ an issue to another organisation.

Avoiding conflict and rivalry. Where there are overlaps between science advisory systems, care should be taken to avoid provision of conflicting advice, and the potential for creating rivalry among systems.

Some selected examples illustrate the range of activities that exist:

Standing scientific advisory bodies
These can be linked to the implementation of one particular treaty (the Scientific Advisory Board of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons); or more broadly support the organisation’s work (the four specialist commissions of the World Animal Health Organisation).

Formation of temporary bodies triggered by certain events
These include the emergency committees formed under the International Health Regulations during global health emergencies (such as the current Ebola outbreak). They tend to draw from an established expert roster.

Inclusion on the agenda of regular conferences
Some treaties have regular review conferences attended by states parties, at which scientific and technological developments may be considered. The Biological Weapons Convention follows this model, but the adequacy of its arrangements in view of rapid advances, has been questioned.

Emergency Response Systems
These systems connect with networks of scientific expertise to assist with early-warning, monitoring, and capacity building. Examples include three Emergency Prevention and Response Systems within the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the Global Outbreak Alert and Response System led by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Joint Mechanisms
There are a few joint networks, including OFFLU (Network of Expertise on Animal Influenza) and the Crisis Management Centre – Animal Health, which are jointly hosted by the FAO and World Animal Health Organisation (OIE).

Specialised Scientific Networks
International organisations often operate as the convenors of networks of expertise. The WHO has over 700 collaborating centres supporting its programmes. Some are grouped in themed networks such as the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System. The OIE also has extensive expert networks.

Information and Data Services
Further connections are made with the scientific community through mechanisms such as data services (e.g. the World Animal Health Information Database) and periodical publications (including the OIE’s Scientific and Technical Review and the WHO Bulletin).

The many formal and informal mechanisms for scientific input into international policy processes provide opportunities for added value from the international collaborative work of government science advisers. Understanding what already exists will greatly assist in fulfilling this role.

*Here, I use the term to refer to intergovernmental organisations with potentially universal membership, which are often associated with the oversight of one or more international treaties or standards, guidelines or codes.


Further Reading:

Berger, K. & Davison, N. 2011. “Bringing Science to Security: Soft Implementation of the BTWC”, Disarmament Forum, Issue 1: 13-25.

Dauphin, G. et al. March 2010. “Main achievements of the World Organisation for Animal Health / United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation Network on Animal Influenza”, Avian Diseases, Vol.54(s1): 380-383.

Smallwood, K. 2010. Truth, Science and Chemical Weapons: Expert Advice and the Impact of Technological Change on the Chemical Weapons Convention. Doctoral Thesis, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex,

Rhodes, C. July 2014. BTWC: Learning from Alternative Models of Science and Technology Review, Biochemical Security 2030 Project – Policy Paper No.7. Available through


Dr Catherine Rhodes, Research Fellow in Science Ethics, Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, UK.