‘Big science’ can achieve SDGs, says global science council

The influential Paris-based International Science Council has called for a ‘big science’ approach to speed up unacceptably sluggish progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. “There is an urgency to act,” it said at the United Nations high-level forum on sustainable development, held in New York last week.

The Council proposes that a ‘big science’ approach should be applied widely and locally for rapid effect – especially in the Global South – and should be accompanied by a new funding model that surpasses current national science funding systems, in a new report titled Flipping the Science Model: A roadmap to science missions for sustainability.

“A global collective investment of US$1 billion per annum, which is not even 1% of global annual R&D investment, would significantly accelerate the progress towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda,” the report stated.

The report was produced by a global commission of the International Science Council (ISC), chaired by Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, and former director-general of UNESCO Irina Bokova. The Council is an international NGO that unites scientific bodies across the social and natural sciences.

With seven years to go for UN Agenda 2030, only 12% of the SDGs are on track. Progress is weak for half of the goals, and the world has stalled or gone into reverse on more than 30% of the SDGs, says the UN.

“Progress on the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda is unacceptably slow. There are many political, policy and framing reasons why this is the case, but it is also clear that science could play a much stronger role,” write Clark and Bokova in the preface of the report.

The Council calls new approaches to practicing science a ‘mission science for sustainability’: “Solutions-focused, time-bound, substantial at scale, and ambitious in the intended impact, this approach emphasises the need for science to directly engage with society, policy-makers, civil society, funders, the private sector and other relevant stakeholders – with the aim to co-design and co-implement interventions leading to urgent action locally and globally.”

Ramp up science investment – UN

An official endorsement of the report comes, in the forward, from Ambassador Csaba Krösi, current president of the UN General Assembly, who welcomed it and said he looked forward to seeing Council missions deliver solutions on the ground.

A similar call to that of the ISC was issued by Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and inter-agency affairs in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

To speed up delivery of the SDGs, investment in science and technology must be ramped up, along with knowledge transfers from North to South and through South-South collaboration, she said in her opening remarks at the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative Global Forum on 17 July.

As did the Council, it held a side event at the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development 2023, convened from 10 to 19 July to support the mid-term review of the SDGs and the 2023 SDG Summit in September.

Progress towards the SDGs has been uneven, but recent multiple and closely interlinked crises – including the COVID-19 pandemic, intensifying climate change, biodiversity crisis, growing inequalities, ongoing conflicts and civil unrest – “have left us unquestionably off track in achieving these goals”, Spatolisano said.

“With only seven years left to make the SDG a reality, making good use of scientific knowledge, technology and innovation is essential.” In particular, sustainability science is needed that draws on all scientific disciplines, including the social sciences and humanities, in a problem solving approach, continued Spatolisano.

Far greater investment from the scientific and engineering communities, governments and other funding bodies was needed, “including to bridge the highly uneven global distribution of scientific capacity and access to knowledge.

“It is alarming that over 60% of total scientific literature and most research and development are carried out in high income countries,” she said. Much more knowledge transfer is needed so that every country has the science and technology to respond to its needs and priorities.

Flipping the Science Model

Sir Peter Gluckman, an internationally recognised biomedical scientist from New Zealand and president of the International Science Council, said disappointing progress on the SDGs could not be excused by COVID-19 and conflict.

“There is a manifest gap between words and action,” he said in an 18 July media release from the University of Auckland, where he heads Koi Tu: The Centre for Informed Futures.

“There is a large gap between technical risk assessments and how policy-makers and politicians react. We have seen this in almost every aspect of the Agenda – from climate change to issues in mental health. We need to close that gap.”

Clark and Bokova write in Flipping the Science Model that the ISC previously explored why science does not make a greater contribution, through a wide consultative process and in a report, Unleashing Science. “The Council highlighted the need for new ways of doing science, making the knowledge actionable, less siloed and truly engaged with stakeholders.”

Subsequent recognition within the science community of the need for structural changes to make science more actionable, prompted the ISC to establish the Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability in 2021, that Clark and Bokova chair.

The commission concurred with Unleashing Science on the “necessity and urgency to develop a new funding approach. This approach should encompass both transnational and national efforts to support actionable and engaged research that surpasses the limitations of the predominantly national-based funding models currently in place”, they write.

“Further, unless funders accept the need to transform their funding instruments to promote transdisciplinary stakeholder-engaged research, science will continue to be under-exploited in addressing the challenges of the 2030 Agenda.”

According to Clark and Bokova, the commission sought practical solutions. It identified “a long-term need for a global transdisciplinary research process that properly brings communities, policy-makers and science together and across the global divides”.

Recognising the need for immediate action, the commission also proposes pilot activities to demonstrate the value and need for a ‘big science’ approach, taken locally for effect.

“Just as the global community has used ‘big science’ approaches to build infrastructure like CERN and the Square Kilometer Array, a similar mindset should be applied, particularly in the Global South, to address sustainable development challenges.”

The Council’s key messages

Flipping the Science Model offers 10 key messages. The first is to fund and undertake science for the SDGs differently.

Secondly: “This requires an additional mechanism beyond the traditional science model, which is predominantly characterised by intense competition, an absence of trustful relationships with stakeholders, and siloed science funding. We propose a model that encourages science to cater directly to societal needs,” the report says.

“This can be achieved by co-creating actionable knowledge and finding solutions tailored to the intricate sustainability issues identified by both local and global stakeholders. The commission advocates for the co-design of research and action to be the standard practice in sustainability science. This approach requires an inclusive collaboration among a wide array of stakeholders, making it the newnorm.”

Thirdly, the new mechanism is mission-led science. Though it is urgently needed, sustainability science must be “strongly anchored in advancing novel theories, methods, and fundamental new concepts”. This would demand continued investments in basic sciences, both as disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches and with a focus on practical outcomes.

Fourth, the commission calls for “a new model for scaling up investment in science to strongly and sustainably support transdisciplinary and engaged mission science for sustainability, with the potential to drive inclusive, intergenerational well-being of both people and our planetary life support systems”.

Having supported big science approaches in basic science and infrastructure, it was time for the global community to invest in human infrastructure. Here, it proposes a global collective investment of US$1 billion per annum.

Fifth, international financial institutions and philanthropic science funders are urged to redesign how they interact with the science sector and civil society, to mobilise mission science around creative solutions. Sixth, it invites UN organisations and donor funders “to support and mainstream mission and transdisciplinary science as an ambitious but pragmatic framework for action”.

Seventh, the commission calls for countries and the multilateral system to develop processes to accelerate the uptake of actionable knowledge to inform policy and its integration into decision-making.

The eighth message proposes that new forms of science could be achieved through “a network of Regional Sustainability Hubs that will be able to identify and tackle these challenges with urgency and at scale”. With enough funding and time, the hubs would ensure that sustainability science “fit-for-purpose, inclusive and results-driven”.

Message nine recommends the “urgent support of pilot projects to demonstrate the validity and effectiveness of this new paradigm for global science”, while the final message says the commission’s proposals should “be seen as an evolution of basic and applied research using traditional modalities, responding to the critical need for a new, currently unrecognised and largely unfunded modality of producing actionable knowledge”.

Not a threat to traditional science

Gluckman, stressed that a different way of doing science needs its own institutional arrangements, in the University of Auckland statement.

“This is not at the expense of traditional science, which is needed. But we need actionable knowledge applied now and this requires a very different way of funding and doing science.”

He says that while science is a global activity, most science is funded at the national level and less than 2% of the global research budget goes to transnational activity.

“The global community can find billions for a ‘big science’ approach to build telescopes. Why can it not find a billion to fund the kind of research and properly engage communities and stakeholders that is desperately needed to address complex, wicked problems?” he asks.

“The world must use science more wisely and create systems to do so, or else the ambitions of 2015 will increasingly be replaced with despair. Working with science can shift us towards a more optimistic future,” Gluckman says.