Science and UNESCO in the UK

David Drewry

Professor David Drewry is Non-Executive Director (Natural Sciences) at the UK Commission for UNESCO. He was Director of Science and Technology at NERC, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, served as Chair of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs and was President of the International Arctic Science Committee. He was also Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute. He was awarded the Polar Medal, Patron’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and has a mountain and glacier named after him in Antarctica.

The United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2021. It is the only UN agency that engages explicitly with and promotes science

UNESCO was founded in London in 1945. Its Constitution was then ratified on 4 November 1946 with its headquarters to be based in Paris.

Its enduring vision is that peace and human rights must be built upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity. This is enshrined in its Constitution and summarised as “since wars begin in the minds of men and women, it is in the minds of men and women that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

UNESCO’s responsibility is to reaffirm the missions of education, science and culture by acting as a laboratory of ideas, setting international normative standards, building capacity, and being a catalyst for international dialogue and cooperation.

National Commission

Each acceding state, of which there are 193, has established a Commission as the official body coordinating its UNESCO activities. In the UK, the aim of the National Commission is to be an active, authoritative and influential leader in engaging with UNESCO. It advises Government Departments on UNESCO programmes and standard-setting instruments, and it promotes measures and enterprises on behalf of the UK harnessing its considerable convening powers. UKNC goals are thus allied closely with the UK Government’s strategic objectives as currently manifested in the Integrated Review.

Across the UK there are over 170 UNESCO designations, associated with 1300 further businesses, local and regional bodies and organisations. Scientific interests are focussed through geoparks, biosphere reserves and university chairs, as well as the network of experts, and can elide with World Heritage sites as in the recent designation (2019) of Jodrell Bank Observatory and The Giant’s Causeway.

In all of these, UKNC is the link between UNESCO, Government and civil society, enabling them to contribute positively and with impact on global science agendas and engage directly with the international community. In this way it works to support the UK’s contribution to UNESCO and to bring the benefits of UNESCO to the UK.

UNESCO science

Since its outset, UNESCO has viewed international scientific cooperation as fundamental. It established the CERN Convention that led to the establishment of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in 1954. Ten years later the Nobel Laureate Abdul Salam founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics with a mission to advance scientific expertise in the developing world. Today, UNESCO is pushing forward with issues of contemporary resonance – recommendations on climate change, the ethics of Artificial Intelligence and Open Science.

The work of UKNC in science forms part of a multilateral approach to international engagements and maintains the UK position of the rules based system, an overarching objective of the Integrated Review. More specifically, the UKNC supports and has oversight of the contributions to UNESCO programmes that build on the UK’s considerable scientific expertise.

The International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) is coordinating projects in areas such as ocean observations, tsunami warnings and marine spatial planning. The IOC provides a focus for UN bodies working to understand and improve the management of our oceans, coasts and marine ecosystems.

In the UK, the National Oceanographic Centre plays a leading role and is particularly influential. The Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme is devoted to water research and management as well as related education and capacity development. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is playing a prominent research function and coordinates contributions across UK universities and other establishments. It works collaboratively in least-developed countries to underpin access to water for disadvantaged communities.

Biosphere reserves

The long-running Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) is focused on enhancing the relationship between people and their environment through a network of biosphere reserves combining social and the natural sciences. The UK has taken a leading role in developing its 10-year Strategy and Action Plan.

The seven UK biosphere reserves find creative ways for people and nature to thrive together. The North Devon Biosphere Reserve embraces Dartmoor, Exmoor and Lundy Island. It possesses one of the best dune systems in the northern hemisphere, a strong maritime heritage, and thriving cultural communities.

Others include the Isle of Man, Wester Ross and Brighton & Lewes Downs. This last attracts 12 million visitors annually who come to experience the high-quality natural environment and rich heritage, including Neolithic archaeological sites. Visitors are engaged directly with the science of landscape, geology and coastal ecosystems.

Primary hubs

The Geological Society and the British Geological Survey are the primary hubs for the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP). This includes understanding and mitigating geohazard risks, sustainable use of earth resources, as well as studying changes in Earth’s climate and life on Earth as preserved in the geological record.

The seven UK global geoparks include the North-West Highlands, Cuilcagh Lakelands straddling the Northern Ireland-Eire border, Forest Fawr (Brecon Beacons) as well as the English Riviera in South Devon that is home to the Kents Cavern jawbone, the oldest modern human fossil in North-West Europe. In 2021, UNESCO established a worldwide Annual Geodiversity Day on the joint proposal of the UK and Portugal.

Sustainable Development Goals

Cutting across all UNESCO activities are the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are rooted in a fundamental concern for our planet’s longer-term health and the wellbeing of its inhabitants. Many of these are tracked by UNESCO science programmes – climate, poverty elimination, clean water, affordable clean energy and sustainable cities. UKNC monitors UK involvement in these global activities.

UK UNESCO designations provide a visible demonstration of the support for various SDGs. For example, many are contributing actively to the urgent and pervasive challenges of climate change. Biosphere reserves and geoparks are in representative locations for monitoring changes to the natural environment and are delivering significant research and educational opportunities. Their heritage while supporting local sustainable economic development, primarily through geo- and eco-tourism. They are playing fundamental roles in communicating the urgency and importance of climate change to tens of thousands of linked communities, stakeholders and individuals. This top- to-bottom characteristic is particularly powerful.

The value of UNESCO in the UK

The UKNC has undertaken important initiatives evaluating and quantifying the benefits to the UK of UNESCO designations. The 2019 survey of approximately half of the UK designations shows, in relatively simplistic terms, their annual contribution amounts to about £150 million; this excludes benefits in-kind and downstream to supply chains. The overall fiscal benefit is likely to be several times this number. The exercise has been sufficiently successful for UNESCO and other countries, such as Denmark, Canada, Iceland and Portugal to seek UKNC’s advice and procedures in order to undertake similar evaluations themselves. 

The 2019 survey of approximately half of the UK’s UNESCO designations shows their annual contribution amounts to about £150 million in benefits to the UK.

The UKNC comprises an extremely small but able staff and seven non-executive directors, yet it has worked energetically to undertake a range of collaborative projects alongside the FCDO primarily, as well as other Government Departments (BEIS, DCMS and DfE) and independent agencies.  For a decade, it has worked jointly with L’Oreal to deliver the annual Women in Science awards that have recognised outstanding talent. It has administered the Newton Prize for the UK Newton Fund, advised the UK Permanent Delegation to UNESCO on all UNESCO programmes and provided Alternate UK members of the UNESCO Executive Board.


Global trends and contemporary challenges facing the world today require international collaboration, dialogue and multilateral approaches. These include: climate change; biodiversity loss; depletion of ocean resources; access to water; impact of frontier technologies (notably AI); disinformation, hate speech and rising extremism; growing urbanisation; unequal access to knowledge and technology; and gender inequalities.

In the face of these serious threats UNESCO’s pluralist, humanist philosophy is more important than ever and offers a framework that is open to all, endorses the rule-based international system and provides widespread benefit through its engagement in scientific programmes – interlaced with the SDGs – in which the UK can and is playing an effective role.

UK UNESCO designations provide a visible demonstration of the support for various UN Sustainable Development Goals.