Plan for US Withdrawal from UNESCO Prompts Concern in Scientific Community

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Publication date: 
24 October 2017

While a few leaders in the scientific community have expressed concern that U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will obstruct long-term international scientific collaboration, the U.S. plans to continue supporting and participating in UNESCO science programs as well as other international science efforts.


(Image credit - U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization)

On Oct. 12, the Trump administration announced that at the end of 2018 the U.S. will withdraw from the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), citing “mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias.”

The U.S. left UNESCO once before during the Reagan administration, and rejoined in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration. Congress stopped funding contributions to UNESCO in 2011 after member states voted to admit Palestine as a UNESCO member state, and the U.S. subsequently lost its voting rights in 2013 due to missed payments. The U.S. remains engaged as a member state and will continue to be on the UNESCO executive board until its withdrawal. After withdrawal, the U.S. will seek to obtain non-member observer status “in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives, and expertise.”

While the action will not have an immediate impact on UNESCO, members of the scientific community have expressed concern that withdrawal could inhibit long-term international scientific cooperation. UNESCO organizes a number of multinational scientific coordination bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and International Hydrological Program (IHP). However, State Department officials say that withdrawal will not affect U.S. participation in these and other UNESCO science programs.

US scientists worry decision could inhibit international cooperation

UNESCO is the only U.N. specialized organization with a science mandate. Among its many functions, the organization aims to spread a culture of peace worldwide through educational, scientific, and cultural initiatives. With 195 member states and a $667 million budget for the biennium 2016-2017, it has helped establish many international scientific organizations and initiatives, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which hosts the Large Hadron Collider, and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP).   

Several scientific societies have expressed concern that the current plans to withdraw could inhibit international scientific cooperation. American Physical Society President Laura Greene commented on the decision in an Oct. 13 statement:

Through UNESCO, scientists transcend national boundaries and other differences to work together and apply science and technology to global challenges that affect everyone. The withdrawal of the U.S. as a member of UNESCO would damage U.S. participation in critical international efforts. APS hopes that the U.S. remains engaged in UNESCO to help influence international cooperation in UNESCO goals.

American Association for the Advancement of Science President Rush Holt similarly observed in an Oct. 12 statement that UNESCO “works to facilitate international science collaboration” and that the “continued retrenchment of the U.S. administration from active participation in international diplomacy efforts and dialogue is deeply concerning to the scientific community.”

The U.S. has engaged with or participated in UNESCO’s major scientific initiatives in some capacity throughout its membership history. This includes IOC, which focuses on coastal and ocean issues and coordinates the international tsunami warning system, and IHP which focuses on freshwater resources and management. On its website, the U.S. Mission to UNESCO underscores the national importance of such initiatives and continuing U.S. engagement with these “programs even during our nineteen-year absence from UNESCO.”

State Department officials told FYI that although the U.S. will no longer be a UNESCO member, it will continue to engage in many of the organization’s programs:

U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO does not alter the U.S. policy of supporting international cooperation in educational, scientific, cultural, communication and information activities. The United States intends to continue to participate in UNESCO science programs, including the [IOC], [IHP], and the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, where there are benefits to the United States.

Withdrawal will also not affect U.S. membership in other international scientific organizations, like the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), or the ability of U.S. non-governmental organizations to establish and maintain an official relationship with UNESCO. However, it is uncertain if the partnerships that three dozen U.S. organizations currently do have with UNESCO will continue after 2018.

Rocky US–UNESCO relationship has a long history

The U.S. has had a longstanding, albeit rocky, history with UNESCO, of which it is a founding member. The U.S. first withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, claiming the organization was becoming too “politicized” and “exhibited hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society” and demonstrating “unrestrained budgetary expansion.” It was not until 2003 that the U.S. officially rejoined, though it continued to engage in the interim in the organization’s international scientific collaborations as a non-member observer state.

Then, in 2011, the UNESCO General Conference decision to admit Palestine as a member triggered U.S. laws that prohibit the funding of U.N. entities that admit as a full member any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.

At the time, the $78 million annual U.S. contribution constituted over 20 percent of UNESCO’s budget. After two years of missing its deadline on annual payments, the U.S. lost its voting rights but retained membership status and continued to actively participate in UNESCO initiatives. According to State Department officials, the U.S. government owes approximately $550 million in arrears, which would have to be rectified if the U.S. were to restore its membership status.

As a non-member observer, State Department officials say the U.S. plans to “continue to work with many allies, friends, and like-minded states to lobby UNESCO to depoliticize, strengthen its governance, and not to exceed its mandate, without seeing [U.S.] arrears continue to increase in the meantime.”

The Trump administration has given little indication whether it will reconsider its intentions to withdraw the U.S. from UNESCO if the organization were to address its concerns. Some policymakers have also questioned whether UNESCO is the right platform for pursuing U.S. foreign science policy interests rather than engaging in initiatives targeted at particular countries. With the recent signing of an umbrella S&T agreement between the U.S. and U.K and this week’s launch of the new U.S.–E.U. Horizon 2020 Work Program for 2018-2020, the U.S. is continuing to pursue international science engagement through bilateral and multilateral agreements. 

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