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Welcoming Address by Mr Walter Erdelen  UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences at the Human Variome Project Implementation & Integration Meeting

UNESCO, 11 May 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Director-General of the Untied Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, let me welcome you to this, the third Human Variome Project Meeting on Implementation and Integration.  I would first like to emphasise how important this Meeting is – by bringing together scientists from around the world to identify, through research, the variations in genes that cause inherited and non-inherited diseases.

UNESCO’s main objective is to contribute to peace and security in the world by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, culture and communication and information. Established in 1945, UNESCO is the sole agency in the UN System having a unique mandate for the sciences, the “S” in UNESCO.  The Organization acts as an advocate for science, as a platform for sharing ideas and standard setting, and promotes dialogue between scientists and policy makers.

It empowers and catalyses innovative initiatives in the field of international cooperation in science, in particular through networks and capacity building activities.

Based on the experiences gained within UNESCO’s science programme and prompted by the needs of national science and technology, UNESCO’s Member States decided to further develop intergovernmental cooperation.  They did so through the launching of the International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP), which has become a new operational platform to fulfil UNESCO’s mandate in the basic sciences and science education.

IBSP focuses on fostering major region-specific actions that involve a network of national, regional and international centres of excellence or benchmark centres in the basic sciences.

Promoting North-South and South-South co-operation is at the root of the strategy of the Programme that is being carried out in partnership with the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), scientific unions of the International Council for Science (ICSU), the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and other science centres, IGOs and NGOs.

Rooted in UNESCO’s longstanding activity in the basic sciences, the IBSP has a multidisciplinary profile that principally encompasses the mathematical, physical, chemical and biological sciences, while also focusing on cross-disciplinary areas. Thus UNESCO is, for example, fostering partnerships in cell and molecular biology, biotechnology, genetics, microbiology, neurobiology, biomedical sciences, bioinformatics, biochemistry and biophysics.  It is doing this in view of the profound impact that contemporary biological sciences and their alliance with physics and chemistry have on the quality of life and sustainable development. In science education, the IBSP aims to promote education at university and post-university levels, as well as foster the linkage between university education and education at other levels.

Under the umbrella of the IBSP, UNESCO’s activities in the life sciences focus on human capacity building to promote international scientific co-operation and to bridge the scientific and technological differences existing between developed and developing countries.  The major aim is the development of endogenous national and regional research capacities in the biological sciences and biotechnology in keeping with rapid scientific advances.

I would like to turn now to some aspects of UNESCO’s work that relate to the Human Variome Project directly.  UNESCO’s support and activities in the area of applied microbiology anticipated the revolution in biology that occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s and positioned the Organization to respond to the emergence of recombinant DNA technologies, biotechnology, and the use of genetic engineering to solve the problems of both old and new diseases.

A meeting of the Human Genome Project was held in Paris in February 1989 at the initiative of the Director-General of UNESCO and participants agreed that UNESCO could help facilitate international cooperation, particularly among developing countries and between developing and developed nations.  A UNESCO programme on the Human Genome for 1990-91 was subsequently approved by the General Conference and UNESCO immediately confirmed its active involvement in the “Symposium on Human Genome Research: Strategies and Priorities.”

A Scientific Coordinating Committee was established and its main activities were a large number of workshops held in the developing countries and large South-North Symposia. During these years the committee developed an extensive short-term fellowship programme, which benefited about 200 scientists from over 50 developing countries.  These scientists were trained in genetics in the best laboratories of Europe and America. I see the Human Variome Project as a natural successor to the Human Genome Project.

An area of importance to curation of genetic data is that of bioethics, for which UNESCO has a strong programme. Progress in the life sciences, such as advances in stem cell research, genetic testing, and cloning, is giving people new power to improve health and control the development processes of all living species. Concerns about the social, cultural, legal and ethical implications of such progress have led to one of the most significant debates of the past century.  Bioethics addresses and encompasses these concerns.

The UNESCO Bioethics Programme was created in 1993 in the Social and Human Sciences Sector.  Bioethics is part of the ethics of science and technology, one of the five principal priorities of UNESCO. The first major success of the Bioethics Programme occurred in 1997, when the General Conference adopted the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the only international instrument in the field of bioethics, which was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1998.

In this rapidly developing field, many people fear that human genetic data will be used for purposes contrary to human rights and freedoms. Governments, NGOs, the intellectual community and society in general are calling for guidelines at the international level.

To address these concerns, the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data was adopted unanimously and by acclamation at UNESCO's 32nd General Conference in 2003. This Declaration and the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights are the only international points of reference in the field of bioethics.

UNESCO wishes to underline the importance of utilizing basic research to meet societal needs and bring together scientists and civil society for dialogue and co-operation. The multidisciplinary nature of the Human Variome Project, which includes scientists and practitioners from different disciplines (molecular biologists, geneticists, clinicians, epidemiologists, bioinformaticians and IT specialists), allows for basic research findings to be accessible to and useful for clinicians and the people they serve.

This meeting will provide substantial opportunities for scientific research networking and fostering links between diverse stakeholders.

I welcome the focus on the sustainability of the variome data collections, as similar efforts are being made with UNESCO's assistance in the area of basic taxonomy and systematics including through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which has similar issues of data set comparability, access for all, and which is a focus of the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity.

UNESCO is happy to be a co-organiser of the Human Variome Project meeting and I would like to wish you a successful gathering.

Thank you.


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