Integrating cutting-edge science into policy to fulfill the sustainable development agenda

25 May 2016

The UN Secretary-General asked his Scientific Advisory Board to support Member States in reaching their sustainable development goals during their 5th meeting opened in Trieste, Italy. Through lively debates, the Board members developed key recommendations to enable the timely implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and focused on modalities for science’s engagement in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, climate-related risk, indigenous and local knowledge for development and food security and health. The meeting was hosted by the Italian government and leading scientific institutions based in Trieste, from 24 to 25 May 2016.

The Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary General seeks to inform the United Nations’ work by providing advice on science, technology and innovation for sustainable development. The Board brings together 25 eminent scientists from all regions of the world and aims to provide a complete picture of scientific needs to face global challenges, taking into consideration natural and social sciences as well as local and indigenous knowledge systems. It will present its conclusions by the end of the year. UNESCO hosts the Secretariat of the Board.

 “As you know, the 2030 Agenda is a people-centred, planet-friendly framework to build a life of dignity for all and leave no one behind” said the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in his message to the Board. “Science is essential to moving this ambitious agenda forward. We need to help ensure that decisions are informed by the best available knowledge. That means integrating cutting-edge science into policy.”

In their reflections on harnessing the potential of science for sustainable development, the Board stressed the need to recognize science as a universal public good, that empowers people to find the solutions they need. Jörg Hacker led efforts to define core principles that underpin science’s role in development, such as enhancing diversity, strengthening science education and promoting interdisciplinary cooperation, as well as key recommendations to maximize the contribution of science in achieving sustainable development goals.

The world is calling out for science”, declared UNESCO’s Director General, Irina Bokova. “We need a new focus on the sciences, to promote equitable and inclusive growth, to eradicate poverty, to bolster energy, water and food security, to control disease, to mitigate disasters, to build sustainable cities.”

One of the key messages that emerged from the discussion was to frame climate change as an issue of resilience and risk management, because uncertainty is a cause for action. Climate-related risks are too large and serious to be ignored, especially as they disproportionately affect the poor. The Board is preparing a policy brief, under the leadership of Carlos Nobre, to present this new approach which will draw from some aspects of health policies in the face of risk and uncertainty, for example to address risks of epidemics.

Local and indigenous knowledge was recognized as a crucial component for sustainability and resilience. Such knowledge systems enclose an understanding of the local environment and complements other types of knowledge to find context-sensitive solutions. These are the systems that inform day to day decision-making in many parts of the world. Joji Cariño is leading the Board’s work in finalizing a policy brief on Indigenous knowledge and science for sustainable development.

The Board also focused on food security and health. Food is the most basic need of humanity, and in the face of current global challenges food security is under threat in many parts of the world.  The challenges that food systems face are complex an innumerable, but the Board, led by Gebisa Ejeta, focused on three aspects: rapid growth in global population and feeding a growing world, changing diets as a result of economies improving, and nutrition (under-nutrition, over-nutrition and deficiencies in micro-nutrients).  

The Board will finalize policy briefs on these issues in the coming weeks.  “We are in a very crucial phase of the UN SAB work, as we are finalizing our report to the UN Secretary General” explained Fabiola Gianotti, who co-chaired the meeting. “It will stress the fundamental important of science and education for a sustainable world, and offer advice on how to strengthen the links between scientists and decision-makers. On a more personal note, I find the meetings of the UN SAB always productive and enriching, and the current one in Trieste confirms this tradition.”

The Board benefited from inputs by high-level observers attending the meeting, including Gordon McBean, president of the International Council for Science (ICSU), Alberto Martinelli, President of the International Social Science Council (ISSC), Mohamed Hassan, President of the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), and Elena Manaenkova, Assistant Secretary-General of WMO.

This 5th meeting was hosted by the Government of Italy, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries (TWAS), the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB).

Holding the meeting at the ICTP provided an opportunity for an exchange between the members of the Board and the faculty and students of several major scientific institutions based in Trieste, during a high-level session on “Strengthening scientific human capacity in developing countries”, which is available online.

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