Science, Technology and Innovation: Critical Means of Implementation for Sustainable Development Goals

Science is the key to a sustainable future. The solutions to current global challenges come from all disciplines and fields of research. But the interface between science and policy must be improved in order to develop and implement these solutions effectively, stressed members of the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary-General as they discussed means of implementation with representatives of Member States on 23 April 2015 in New York. These eminent scientists insisted that research and development must be harnessed to help society solve critical problems such as access to energy, health care and food security. They also observed that science can empower the most vulnerable and poorest people to develop their own solutions and alleviate poverty.

The round table, organized by UNESCO, was held during the 4th session of the Post-2015 Intergovernmental negotiations as an opportunity to explore the role of science, technology and innovation as critical means of implementation for sustainable development. Five members of the Scientific Advisory Board participated to shared their expertise and perspectives with Members States representatives: Joji Cariño, Director of the Forest Peoples Programme (Philippines), Jörg Hacker, President of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (Germany), Maria Ivanova, Co-Director, Center for Governance and Sustainability (Bulgaria), Winston Soboyejo, President, African University of Science and Technology (Nigeria), and Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia. The discussion, which was facilitated by Flavia Schlegel, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, also benefited from data provided by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Investments in science, technology and innovation (STI) and in R&D vary. The proposed target of 1% of the GDP may fall short of reaching the full potential of STI for achieving future Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, while the most stable countries invest 2.5 to 3.5 of their GDP in strong STI systems, many others perceive the 1% target as high. There is a clear need to demonstrate that science can be mobilized to gain a clear understanding of the world and its evolution, but also to operationalize changes, such as a transformation towards local low carbon economies or sustainable urbanization. Science can assist with decision-making and contribute to solving critical problems such as access to energy, health care, climate change, biodiversity loss and food security, while creating jobs and increasing income.

Investing in people is also essential: science depends on talent and skills, to create and implement the most effective applications, to identify better technologies. Such technologies must be improved and disseminated much faster, which means that we need skilled experts, engineers and researchers.

All people, especially the most vulnerable, can use knowledge and STI as leverage to develop their own solutions, thus making inclusive development possible. Communities, working with their own researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs, and drawing from their local understanding and knowledge, can be empowered to design the systems best adapted to their situations for clean water and energy, or to treat diseases such as malaria in Africa.

Filling the digital divide will enable communities to benefit fully from the data revolution and participate actively in their development. This, together with the democratization of knowledge, can have a truly transformative impact. For example, communities can share their own, detailed local knowledge and be involved in improving the management of natural resources and the preservation of their local biodiversity, which is essential to their development.

Community-based monitoring systems are an example of such democratization, whereby indigenous and local knowledge is used to track progress in the implementation of global commitments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. Indicators of direct relevance to people are used, such as land tenure security, land changes, linguistic diversity, and how indigenous and local communities are being included in relevant action plans relating to biodiversity loss or climate change adaptation. There is need to fully appreciate the role of indigenous and local knowledge in achieving the sustainable development targets and in monitoring progress.

Science, like society, benefits from the greatest diversity. When they are nurtured, through multidisciplinary approaches, including gender and cultural perspectives, and cooperation at the national and international levels, STI become compelling tools, empowering people to imagine a path towards inclusive, sustainable development.  

The next meeting of the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary-General will be held in Malaysia on 25-26 May. They will develop recommendations to address issues such as climate change and associated risks, improving the science/policy interface or the data revolution.

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