Serving the Greater Good

In 2002, as a member of the U.S. Department of State, I attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, I led a team responsible for forming global partnerships in resource management and social welfare. Organized by the United Nations (UN) Commission on Sustainable Development, the summit was convened to build upon the landmark UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held 10 years earlier in Rio de Janeiro.

The summit atmosphere was highly charged. Governments and individuals were represented in every conceivable form. And the rooms were filled with answers waiting to be provided. Lacking all too often, however, were the right questions that might steer the process toward decisions to serve the greatest global good. Confounded by the sheer complexity of the process, our team undertook an initiative virtually unique to the UN system at the time. In the midst of high-level negotiations, we convened a series of tutorials and workshops on the underlying scientific principles of the issues before us.

Every day, people all over the planet face challenges rooted in scientific principles. Decisions critical to the health and well-being of entire populations depend upon an understanding and appreciation of scientific complexity on a global scale.

Perhaps more than ever before, we are recognizing the interconnectedness of global and local issues. The consequences of today’s challenges reach well beyond afflicted regions, and regardless of the challenge, there is nearly always a local example or action that can inspire the greater good.

We should never underestimate the role of science centers and museums as informational platforms within their local communities. Science centers can inspire timely, responsible action by citizens in the face of challenges (or prospective opportunities). More and more ASTC-member institutions are offering activities to inform and educate visitors, from explanations of global processes to local community dialogues or citizen science projects. Education and information exchange have the potential to combat paralysis or complacency in the face of a seemingly overwhelming number of issues impacting quality of life.

Over the past two decades, the UN has drawn attention to some of the most critical issues facing the world, many of which require science understanding and local action. UNCED in 1992 was a milestone in our appreciation of all aspects of environmentally sustainable development. In 2000, the 189 UN member states adopted the Millennium Declaration, calling for global commitment to measurable targets (Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs) for combating extreme poverty and hunger, and promoting gender equality, education, health, and environmental sustainability. (Click here for the list of MDG indicators.)

Achieving progress on these objectives is a daunting task. The UN has agreed to convene a “Rio+20” Earth Summit in 2012 to address sustainable development, the green economy, energy, climate, biodiversity, and food and water resources. The UN will also convene an MDG Summit in September 2010 in New York City “to galvanize commitment, rally support, and spur collective action in order to reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.”

At the time of UNCED, it was well understood and articulated that education is essential to knowledge and action in these critical arenas. Yet informal science education and science centers were not highlighted in any significant way. Our field has made great progress in addressing these issues since that time, adding tremendous value to public understanding and action on these topics. Our coordinated efforts are reflected in ASTC’s International Action on Global Warming (IGLO) initiative; the Action on Climate Change through Engagement, Networks, and Tools (ACCENT) project; the European Network of Science Centres and Museums (Ecsite) Nature Group addressing biodiversity; and many other initiatives. We should aim to ensure that the science center field receives appropriate recognition at Rio+20 for the valuable role our institutions play in educating and fostering action to support the UNCED agenda.

The Millennium Declaration and the MDGs also correspond closely with the priorities of science centers and museums worldwide. Support for the MDGs is a principle set forth in the Toronto Declaration endorsed by participants in the Fifth Science Centre World Congress in June 2008. For this reason, science centers and museums will take the opportunity of this upcoming MDG Summit to highlight our institutions’ role in advancing education and public engagement concerning the MDGs.

ASTC has drafted a Declaration (PDF, 432 KB) to the MDG Summit, embraced by science centers and museums worldwide, urging strong endorsement and support at national, regional, and global levels to enable science centers and museums to inform, educate, and engage the public even more deeply in these critical issues. In addition, on September 21, 2010, ASTC, with support from the other science center networks, will hold a side event in New York City at the occasion of the MDG Summit. This event demonstrates our commitment to support achievement of the MDGs through informal science education and public engagement with science. This is the first time ASTC will bring together UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and science centers to discuss cooperation on global issues. To download a PDF about this event, click here.