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Policy needs science and empathy to confront “the complexity and amplitude of the problems mankind faces”


Photo: Cédric Villani, mathematician, scientist and French parliamentarian participating in the High Level Reflection Group meeting in Paris in November 2019.

There has never been a more pressing need for empathy and science in policy. We have seen throughout the COVID-19 crisis the enormous importance of accounting for psychological factors in policymaking – the impacts on medical staff, the management of misinformation, confinement, mourning and burial – all while trying to control a pandemic.

Cédric Villani, mathematician, scientist and French parliamentarian.

That policy needs both science and empathy holds true, he says, across any number of fields – whether that be medical science or sustainable agriculture, new technologies or heritage protection – and represents an important consideration for sustainable development around the world. Facilitating the connection between policymakers and scientists is therefore an important area of work when facing up to our contemporary global challenges.

Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital technologies to the benefit of society

One area where this is the case is in the field of emerging technologies, and in particular the ethical management of artificial intelligence. According to respondents to UNESCO’s World in 2030 survey, one of the key solutions to the ethical challenges posed by AI is the creation of a global ethical framework. UNESCO has engaged in elaborating a recommendation on the ethics of artificial intelligence, which is designed as a global standard-setting instrument. Like the recommendation, Cédric Villani reflects on the importance of a human-centred approach to AI.

The first thing to know about Artificial Intelligence is that the terminology is misleading, because it is not really intelligence – it is about completing tasks in the most efficient way. It can be a very useful tool in this sense. And what is interesting is that AI does not need such deep science as we had originally thought – it can be approached in a very pragmatic and open-minded fashion.

Cédric Villani

According to Cédric Villani, this means that AI development is often driven by applications and users. However, he points out, passive use and development of AI does not promote sustainable or equitable development. The main concern in this field, says Cedric Villani, is the huge concentration of actors dealing with artificial intelligence in just a few countries, preventing the benefits of the advancing technology being shared – often along socioeconomic lines. The important steps to be taken, he advises, include building multidisciplinary development teams working on projects for good, and enhancing capacity building, particularly in countries where this is lacking. This means having international actors, policymakers and developers work together on AI, and new technologies more generally, in the service of peace and sustainable development. For example, digital technologies can be used for cultural heritage preservation.

“There are a number of applications of virtual reality which can be used to recreate and preserve works of art, archaeological sites, landscapes, even cities from certain periods. An important example of this was the virtual reconstruction of statues in Afghanistan in places that were ravaged by the war with the Taliban; precious statues that were eventually destroyed, and now remain only in the form of virtual reproductions.”

Similarly, explains Cédric Villani, digital technologies can help facilitate the restitution of cultural artefacts. This is a very important trend in cultural exchange and diplomacy, he says, which the digital sciences can facilitate though the description, reproduction and conservation of digital artefacts. In this way, digital sciences can support foreign policy in the service of not only heritage protection but cultural harmony.    

Building ethical policy and linking scientists to policymakers

Ethical AI development and the restitution of cultural artefacts are just two areas where we see the importance of incorporating ‘human’ factors in policymaking. According to Cédric Villani, this means considering religious beliefs, cultural diversity, and underlying biases, as well as – as with his pandemic example – the psychological factors associated with both the challenges addressed by policy, and the mechanics of policy themselves. Underlying this, he says, is an imperative for science- and evidence-based policy. 

“Science-backed policy is terribly important, particularly when you consider the complexity and amplitude of the problems mankind faces, like those associated with climate degradation, as well as sustainable development related to agriculture, livestock, forest management, waste issues, and resource scarcity. Many of these problems are acute in Africa and developing countries. Being able to base decisions on rational sciences is crucial for addressing such challenges in all contexts.”

While at the foundation, says Cedric Villani, we must address trust in science in both the public and those elected to positions of power and decision-making, a key gap that must be addressed lies in the construction of bridges between science and governance. For Cédric Villani, this means supporting both institutions that span this gap, and direct communication between scientists, policymakers and the public.


It is never simple, never easy to make a bridge between science and policymakers. For instance, institutions need to have both political and mediatic influence while maintaining a high standard of science. And currently, there are significant difficulties faced by science, like disinformation, and the misuse of science for private interests.

Cédric Villani

One important area where this is relevant is in approaching policy and other responses to environmental crises like climate change and biodiversity loss.

“Biodiversity is our common heritage. As members of the biosphere, biodiversity is maybe our most precious asset; and the current crisis in biodiversity and mass extinction that is occurring is a world threat that unites us all. Mankind has a very ambiguous role here: it has managed to explore and understand the biosphere in phenomenal ways, and yet is this amazing force to destroy biodiversity in all sectors. Reversing biodiversity loss and preventing mass extinction lies on our shoulders and science is a key tool for this.”

Supporting science and research capacity in Africa

Overall, says Cédric Villani, we must promote the development of science worldwide, and particularly in developing regions, whether that be via organisations like CIMPA, a UNESCO Category 2 centre promoting mathematics research in developing countries, or building research capacity on the ground in regions where it is lacking. 

Reflecting on his experience in Africa, Cédric Villani says some key barriers to this include a dearth of institutions, bureaucratic difficulties, politicisation of management nominations, and instability driven by conflict or governance issues – all of which can disincentivise scholars to engage with the region. Such gaps and barriers must be addressed, he says, so that a larger portion of motivated local students can pursue research careers on the ground.

“The mathematician Wilfrid Gangbo helped me early in my career. Later, he invited me to a conference in Benin designed to promote science on the spot in Africa. I immediately fell in love with the atmosphere of studies in Africa: so many young students with a broad diversity of behaviours and cultures, and with an enormous appetite for knowledge.”

A peace message based on science

UNESCO’s multidisciplinary mandate gives it a unique position to deal with education and science simultaneously, while its potential as a multi-stakeholder platform gives it room to enhance the links between scientists and policymakers. The complexities of working with a broad range of interests and coming to a consensus, says Cédric Villani, are outweighed by the enormous benefits of bringing people together and enhancing this link.

“UNESCO has a very important role to play in promoting science globally. It has the advantage of a very respected brand, being at the interface of science, education, and international affairs. It is a name that evokes trust, and that is sufficiently rare worldwide that we must rely on it. More than this, UNESCO brings a peace message based on science.”

Cédric Villani is a member of the Director General’s High Level Reflection Group, an initiative of UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation designed to anticipate and analyse global developments and contribute to the enrichment of UNESCO’s next Medium-Term Strategy.


*The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or official position of UNESCO.