Opening remarks to the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) Science Day

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up view of someone at a panel taking notes on paper

15 July 2023

President of the International Science Council (ISC)

The ISC is the world’s primary NGO representing both natural and social sciences. It brings a scientifically pluralistic and geographically diverse perspective to the table. It has refocused its efforts to be an essential interface and between the scientific community and the multilateral system. We are establishing an office in New York. In partnership with UNESCO, we are supporting the newly formed Group of Friends for Science for Action, an initiative ISC suggested to members states last year, and one that President Kőrösi has done much to foster. I am delighted to see Ambassador Joyimi of South Africa, one of the Group’s co-chairs, here.

We need to be honest. Progress on the SDGs has been disappointing. Covid-19 and conflict may create excuses, but there are deeper reasons. The Global Sustainability Development Reports of 2019 and 2023 are frank in their assessments.

So what needs to change as we progress towards 2030 and beyond? There is a manifest gap between words and action. 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 mental health. We need to close that gap.

The SDGs were a political construct. Their siloed nature with 17 SDGs and 169 non-adaptable targets does not align with how governments operate and a rapidly changing world. Science was marginalized and was an afterthought in their design. Can we not now change that as we enter the second half of the SDG window? Thinking in 17 silos has led to linear thinking which undermines the potential of science to have optimal impact. The Global Sustainability Development Reports and other expert reports (e.g The World in 2050) have emphasized the need to shift to a systems-based nexus approach.

There are extensive analyses that show the need for more pluralistic approaches. The social sciences are poorly employed. There has been an understandable willingness to invest in technology and technological solutions, and we need these; but just as a big science approach is being applied in some fundamental sciences, we need a big science approach using transdisciplinary methods and social sciences along with the natural sciences and humanities to make real progress.

More broadly science is too-often marginalized in the multilateral system. Science is seen primarily in a tactical or technical rather than strategic role. This is self-defeating. This issue extends to member states – most do not have effective science advisory mechanisms, and even the lessons from Covid-19 are not being heeded. All member states need their own ecosystems of knowledge generators, evidence synthesizers, and importantly knowledge brokers. We need experienced knowledge brokers working at the interface between the knowledge and policy communities. Access to power must be real and bidirectional and not tokenistic.

Science is a global activity, but most science is funded at a national level – less than 2% of the global research budget goes to transnational activity, and it is generally in very limited areas and is global north-dominated. On Monday the ISC will release the report of a Commission chaired by Helen Clark and Irina Bokova, building on several years’ consultation, arguing that suitable funding instruments acting at scale are needed to develop and apply actionable knowledge. They see this as a fundamental gap in the needed tool kit to advance the sustainability agenda. This new commitment must not be at the expense of basic and discovery science, which can provide solutions for the future, but we need a big science approach to produce and provide actionable knowledge across the world. Here stakeholders are equal partners with the science community in all respects. New funding mechanisms are needed to do so.

Finally, the world faces another existential threat: loss of trust in science and its replacement with too-often manipulated and politicized pseudo-knowledge. Only generalizations are possible in the minute I have left. Some of this distrust results from the conduct of the scientific community with its often-exhibited hubris, internal incentives, and lack of engagement with other knowledge systems, but much is due to social change, disinformation, politicization, and affective polarization. The science and policy communities must work together to address this issue. The ISC is establishing a project with UN agencies to explore the science of promoting trust in science.

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.

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