Michael Ravassard/UNESCO

Can UNESCO's Tainted Science Prize Be Stopped?

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

Winning a UNESCO prize for your work in the life sciences—including a trip to Paris, a medal, and a $300,000 check—sounds quite prestigious. But what if the award was named after a corrupt dictator, and he was at the award ceremony to congratulate you? That's the situation one or more scientists could find themselves in late June, when the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences is set to be awarded.

Human rights organizations are lobbying hard to stop UNESCO—the U.N.'s agency for education, science, and culture—from awarding the prize, named after and bankrolled by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (photo), the president of Equatorial Guinea since 1979. But time appears to be running out. The jury has already picked the winner or winners—the maximum is three—and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova could announce the prize by the end of next week, UNESCO spokesperson Susan Williams says.

Behind the scenes at the Paris-based agency, feverish discussions are still ongoing to find a way to postpone or drop the award, which activists say would irreparably tarnish UNESCO's credibility. But canceling it now would exacerbate friction between rich and poor countries within UNESCO, especially between Africa and Europe.

Equatorial Guinea proposed the prize for "scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life" in 2008 and put $3 million* on the table in award money and administrative costs for the first 5 years. The United States and most European countries—led by France, which held the rotating E.U. presidency at the time—opposed it because of Equatorial Guinea's dismal record on human rights and corruption.

A West African country the size of Belgium, Equatorial Guinea became wealthy almost overnight after oil was discovered in its waters in the 1990s. With some $5 billion in revenues annually and a population of less than 1 million, its GDP per capita is on a par with Italy and Israel. But a majority of the population lives in extreme poverty, while most of the oil money appears to be pocketed by a clan around Obiang and his family.

A 2004 investigation by the U.S. Senate found evidence of widespread corruption, and a recent report by Global Witness, a human rights organization—entitled The Secret Life of a Shopaholic—found that the president's son and presumed successor owns multimillion dollar homes in Malibu, California, and South Africa, a private jet, and a fleet of very expensive cars. That's hard to explain based on the $4000 to $5000 monthly salary that the son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, makes in his official job as minister of forestry, fisheries, and the environment, says Global Witness. He is under investigation in several countries.

The government frequently tramples human rights, too. A 2008 report by the U.S. State Department reported many serious problems, including unlawful killings by security forces, government-sanctioned kidnappings, systematic torture of prisoners and detainees, life-threatening conditions in prisons, arbitrary arrest, detention and incommunicado detention, and violence and discrimination against women. Meanwhile, child mortality, already high, has gone up in recent years.

So why did UNESCO go along? In 2008, when the proposal came before UNESCO's Executive Board—on which 58 of the agency's 193 member states have a seat--Western countries opposing it did not even ask for a vote because they knew they would suffer defeat, says the UNESCO ambassador from one European country, who asked not to be named. "It was the first African science prize. African countries were all in favor, and they had enough supporters among the G77," a coalition of developing nations, says the diplomat. "At UNESCO, asking for a vote is like a declaration of war," the diplomat added.

Nongovernmental organizations have since lobbied to thwart the plan. "UNESCO needs to act," says Global Witness Campaigns Director Gavin Hayman. "A scientific award in Obiang's honor is ludicrous." His organization and 45 others wrote UNESCO Bokova several times—most recently on 10 May—to express their dismay. In March, a group of Equatoguinean and international scholars asked Bokova to suggest that the award money be spent on education in Equatorial Guinea's school system, which they said is abysmal, despite the country's wealth.

Initially, the protests appeared successful. In January, Bokova said she would ask a task force to review UNESCO's prizes. "She wants to have the procedure revised to make sure there is real consensus about the creation of these awards," says Williams. Many believed this meant that the Obiang prize had been put on hold until the task force reports this fall. But the prize is going ahead anyway, Williams says.

The deadline, delayed several times because of a lack of nominations, closed on 30 April, and the five-member jury has now reached a decision, which is still under wraps. (So is the identity of the jury members, one from each continent.) Rules stipulate that up to three persons, groups, or institutions can share the award.

Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat elected in 2009 on a platform to reform the heavily politicized agency, is in a thorny position; going ahead with the prize could undermine UNESCO's credibility, but canceling it would offend African sensibilities. Bokova is still mending fences with the Arab world after she trumped Egypt's candidate for the job in a highly contentious series of votes.

Williams says Bokova tried to signal her own concerns about the award in an April speech to the Executive Board, when she said that she had "received criticism" about the prize, which she had passed on to the Board, which is ultimately responsible for the decision. "I have done my best, as director-general, to fulfill my role, which is to ensure the credibility of the process," Bokova said. If Western countries wanted to attempt to postpone or cancel the prize, they could have spoken up at the April meeting, says Williams. None did. But Hayman says Bokova's words weren't very clear and suggested the prize was still on hold. "It appears that she dropped the ball on this," he says.

Science Insider today contacted the UNESCO delegations of France, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and the United States—all of which have a seat on the Executive Board—but none were willing to comment on the issue or the April meeting. Neither was the Executive Board's chairperson, Eleonora Mitrofanova from Russia.

"I don't see how we can get out of this," the European diplomat says. Theoretically, Bokova could block the award by rejecting the jury's choice, but that "seems highly unlikely," says Williams.

Sylvie Rano, a member of Equatorial Guinea's delegation to UNESCO, says she is "sorry" that NGOs are trying to block the award. But she would not comment further and referred ScienceInsider to President Obiang's office. Rano says Obiang plans to come to Paris for the June ceremony if his agenda permits it.

The prize appears to be part of a broader effort by Obiang to give his country—hardly a hotbed of research--a more science-friendly face. Another indication is his bid to host the new African Observatory for Science, Technology and Innovation, a center proposed by the African Union that would track research and development efforts around the continent.

Equatorial Guinea has promised $3.6 million for the observatory, and African science ministers accepted the offer at a meeting last year in Burundi. But the Web site SciDevNet recently reported that the plan has been delayed, in part because Equatorial Guinea failed to attend several key meetings.

* The amount of money has been corrected.