New Zealanders lead call for SDGs to be science-led

Young couple cycling, others walking or jogging late afternoon and enjoying the sunset at Stanley Park

Three internationally renowned New Zealanders are part of the International Science Council’s global commission calling for a “new way of doing science” to tackle the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Former prime minister Helen Clark, film director James Cameron, and president of the International Science Council Distinguished Professor Sir Peter Gluckman are members of a commission that has released the report Flipping the Science Model: A Roadmap to Science Missions for Sustainability at the High Level Political Forum of the UN in New York today.

Ms Clark co-chaired the Commission with Irina Bokova, former Director General of UNESCO.

The commission was formed in 2021 after discussion with the global funding community to explore how to accelerate actionable science in relation to the SDGs.

The commission states that progress on the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda is unacceptably slow, and there is a need to fund and undertake science for the SDGs differently if we are to put humanity and the planet back on a path towards long-term global sustainability.

Sir Peter says the progress on the SDGs has been disappointing which cannot be excused by Covid-19 and conflict.

“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 issues in mental health. We need to close that gap.”

He says while there has been a willingness to invest in technology and technological solutions, there is also a need to invest in a “big science approach” using transdisciplinary methods that includes natural sciences and humanities and engages with other knowledge systems.

Transdisciplinary science engages a cross section of stakeholders at the start of and throughout a science challenge – ensuring policy-makers, civil society, the private sector, and end users are engaged from the beginning.

Sir Peter says this is a different way of doing science and needs its own institutional arrangements.

“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 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 generally in very limited areas and global north dominated.

“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?”

The ISC hopes to initiate some pilots next year while working with partners to build a global initiative.

“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,” Sir Peter says.

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