Science for Sustainable Development: Are We Ready for the Change?

By Ruba A. Al-Zu’bi, Advisor to the President at the Royal Scientific Society — Jordan, +SocialGood Advisor, & United Nations Foundation Protector of Progress

When the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was launched in 2015, it was based on five key elements: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. At the time, none of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were solely dedicated to science or scientific research. However, this does not undermine the role of science in development. In fact, the Sustainable Development Agenda calls for strengthening the integration of science and technology into the various aspects of life so that they can maximize their impact on human development. Moreover, SDG 9 — build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation — calls for countries to measure their spending on research and development.

Nowadays, people look to science, technology, and innovation as enablers for economic development and as a means to improve quality of life. Scientists and researchers are not only able to propose knowledge-based solutions for current challenges, but more importantly, they own the knowledge, data, and credibility needed to embark on the rapidly changing future.

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In 2019, the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) published a report titled ‘Improving Scientific Input to Global Policymaking with a Focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.’ This report discussed a number of ways scientists and researchers could contribute to inclusive sustainable development. These include channeling research towards the identification and analysis of the interactions between different SDGs as well as proposing solutions that can enhance development impact.

Additionally, the report called for new approaches to engaging researchers in the design, measurement, and analysis of the SDGs indicators. These recommendations include carrying out more research in the area of ‘complex systems sciences’ to deepen the understanding of the earth’s carrying capacity and enable more innovations in the area of natural resources management. In addition, the report asks for the maintenance of a readily accessible electronic database of all studies and research related to sustainable development and SDGs.

Some countries have already started research projects around complex sustainable development challenges. Through this, they are attempting to better understand the interactions between SDGs and to propose solutions and/or scenarios with calculated trade-offs. For example, researchers in India are analyzing potential compromises between the expansion of agricultural land and biodiversity conservation and low carbon practices. Researchers in Africa tackle the impact phasing out fossil fuels may have on job creation, while others investigate food security within cities in relation to urban planning.

In my country, Jordan, we aim to strengthen the role of social sciences and humanities in applied research and innovation through a collaborative initiative called “El Hassan Research Chair in Sustainability.” Such research projects and initiatives not only enrich the contributions of science into the SDGs, but more importantly, influence the impact of the sustainable development agenda locally, regionally, and globally.

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Beyond individual projects, strengthening the role of scientific research and science institutions in the development agenda is will help the enhancement and coordination of the supply and demand of science and technology. Several measures can assist in this endeavor, provided it is backed up by collective ownership and strong will.

Such measures may include transforming planning and decision-making processes to become more science and evidence-based, building trust and feasible partnership models between the generators and users of knowledge (industry, government, civil society organizations, and other national actors), institutionalizing national dialogue around development priorities and their interactions with science, and ultimately reaching a revolution in how researchers and innovators design their projects for maximum social impact.

So, are we ready to bring the discussion around the role of science and technology in sustainable development from global to local? Do we have the luxury of time to re-think our planning approach for both sustainability as well as research and innovation, or should we seize the time of crisis to infuse the aspired change? And, how would such change contribute to making the world a better and more livable place?

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