Eörs Szathmáry, evolutionary biologist, research professor at the ELKH Centre for Ecological Research (CER), and academician, has been elected to the Scientific Board of the UNESCO Basic Sciences Programme. The Scientific Board is the only UN body that provides recommendations to the global organization’s leaders on basic research issues. Eörs Szathmáry believes that his membership will also support Hungarian basic research, which is more important than ever in times of the pandemic.

The International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP) has been operating within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) since 2005. IBSP’s mission is to support innovative research in the four disciplines defined at its founding – biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. A key objective of the program is to promote discoveries in basic research by supporting and disseminating them, thereby contributing to improving people’s quality of life and protecting our environment.

The Scientific Board is always composed of 30 scientists representing countries from all over the world and a wide range of basic research disciplines. Eörs Szathmáry was nominated to the Board by Miklós Réthelyi, head of the Hungarian National Committee of UNESCO. The mandate is for three years, renewable once. The letter of invitation from UNESCO stresses that “in this unprecedented period of COVID-19, scientific advice is more important than ever as the world cries out for evidence-based knowledge and decision-making that makes use of it”.

“I consider it a priority to support basic research with all the tools at my disposal. We need to protect exploratory research and make society understand that without it, civilization could be at serious risk,” said Eörs Szathmáry.

Only a fraction of the world’s countries are represented on the Scientific Board, so Eörs Szathmáry said his election is clear recognition for the Hungarian scientific community. IBSP’s Scientific Board will hold its next meeting next week, where the Hungarian researcher will give a presentation on how his field can benefit humanity. One of the most important tasks of the basic research program is to resolve the tension between discovery and applied research, as the former cannot exist without the latter.

The research professor says that, as in evolution, it is not always possible to predict the impact that a discovery in basic research will have in the world of applied science. Even in evolution, it is often impossible to predict how a mutation will affect the survival of the descendants of an individual now or later. But a better understanding of global phenomena is essential if we are to succeed in facing future challenges that are not even visible today.

It is now clear that serious ecological problems lie at the root of emerging infectious diseases. Humans have used the environment irresponsibly, largely because the ecological knowledge that could have warned them of the dangers was not available, or if it was, they preferred to ignore it. Evolutionary research can also provide useful predictions for how pathogens jump between species, but this requires the creation of an extensive monitoring system, support for the relevant basic research, and, rather than very costly treatment, prevention, which, although also expensive, is much more cost-effective.

“We, the researchers at CER, have been trying for years to raise awareness in society that health and social problems are inseparable from ecological pressures. Therefore, in my presentation, I will definitely mention the fact that COVID-19 is far from being the last pandemic humanity will have to face. In order to prevent the next pathogen from causing such a pandemic, we need to start prevention now, which is inconceivable without ecological and evolutionary research,” stressed Eörs Szathmáry.