A flurry of commitments are being made this year that will shape the world over the next fifteen years, including the agreement of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the UN conference of parties (COP) on climate change in Paris, and the leaders’ declaration from the last G7 Summit on phasing out fossil fuels by the end of the century.
Throughout 2015, the sustainable development agenda is high on international and national agendas, creating a window of opportunity. Central to this are the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which were formally endorsed at the United Nations last month. The SDGs provide a positive and inspiring roadmap towards a just and sustainable society. They aim to tackle a wide range of social issues (including poverty, health, education, gender, and inequality) as well as environment and resource issues (such as water, food and energy security, climate change, oceans and biodiversity) in an integrated way. However, more work is required to identify how such ambitious goals can be realised.
Recently a group of thirty-two scientists from twenty-three countries met for a week-long workshop in Italy, hosted by the International Council for Science, International Social Science Council and Future Earth. One of the main messages to emerge from the meeting was the need for more effective linking of science to policy in the unfolding debate around the global goals.
Science needs to inform the design and monitoring of the SDGs and offer technical and social solutions. It must also support the implementation of these solutions. This means going beyond offering skilled and appropriate scientific advice – which remains crucial – by finding ways in which scientists can collaborate with policymakers and other stakeholders to jointly frame problems, generate new knowledge, and make that knowledge relevant to specific contexts.
Our workshop identified three crucial elements to this more collaborative model: translation, trade-offs and transparency.
New science is required to translate goals from the abstract global level, to the national level, and to practical local levels. While broad goals such as “end poverty everywhere” and “promote peaceful and inclusive societies” are laudable, they need to be contextualised. They will mean different things in Addis Ababa, La Paz or Dhaka than in London or New York.
What actions will be required in these and other cities to deliver on the SDG vision? Robust science advice is needed to support implementation pathways and identify tangible solutions. Translation is also crucial to ensuring policy coherence, so that the global goals are in line with existing national targets and policies. The SDGs need to be translated into actionable agendas, which will require strong participation by the scientific community.
There is real potential for mutual benefits across multiple SDGs, as work towards one goal may be beneficial for others. Two-plus-two could equal a lot more than four. For example, providing better education (goal 4) will help to address poverty (goal 1), gender equality (goal 5), inclusive employment (goal 8), foster innovation (goal 9), and promote peaceful societies (goal 16).
However, there is also a risk of trade-offs and tensions between some of the SDGs. Within a suite of 17 goals and 169 specific targets, it is inevitable that some might conflict. For example, there maybe tensions between achieving food security to end hunger (goal 2) while simultaneously protecting water resources (goal 6), halting biodiversity loss (goal 15), and addressing climate change (goal 13).
The science community has to play a central role in identifying mutual benefits that can accelerate progress, as well as potential trade-offs. Innovating in response to these (not just technically, but also politically and socially) is a thorny challenge that science must contribute to across societies, as part of the implementation process for the SDGs.
Transparency is also required. Providing advice to policymakers regarding SDG implementation is a core role for the science community. However, as Roger Pielke Jr. has argued, there are different ways that this can be done, including as a science arbiter, issue advocate, or as an “honest broker” of policy alternatives. These are all likely to be needed, especially honest brokers, given that the SDGs are embedded in complex social and political contexts. Scientists need to be aware of their role in policy processes, and savvy in the face of political arguments that will inevitably arise.
Another less obvious role for scientists is contributing to ongoing dialogue across societies about the SDGs. The path to implementation will be complicated and messy, with a mix of good and bad news, such that technical results might be difficult to communicate. The science community should support public knowledge about the SDGs and their implementation over time. This means looking beyond academic papers to engage people and civil society more directly in these debates.
The scientific community has helped to generate the current momentum for sustainable development and the SDGs. By linking evidence to policy in timely, thoughtful and sensitive ways, scientists can now contribute to the task of implementation. It’s not just up to the politicians whether the SDGs succeed or fail; this is a responsibility that we, as early career scientists, all share.
This article was co-authored by Florian Koch (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Leipzig, Germany), James Patterson (University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), Nicholas Cradock-Henry (New Zealand Landcare Research), Kathryn Bowen (University of Melbourne/Australian National University), El Mostafa Jamea (MENA Renewables and Sustainability Institute, Morroco), Tiina Häyhä (Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden), Jess Vogt (Indiana University, United States) and Fabiana Barbi (State University of Campinas, Brazil). They were part of a group of early career scientists who participated in an ICSU, ISSC and Future Earth workshop on science, policy and the SDGs, in May 2015.