Progressing the sustainability agenda

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up view of solar panels in a city, with skyscrapers in the background.

Remarks to the opening plenary of Science Summit to the United Nations 76th General Assembly

Sir Peter Gluckman
President-Elect of the International Science Council
14 September 2021

Mr Chairman, Members of the UN family,

First let me congratulate His Excellency Abdullah Suhail, President of the General Assembly and Foreign Minister of the Maldives on his election as President of the General Assembly. It is a critical period for the multilateral system, which must lift its game if we are to progress on so many things. It is also a critical time particularly for small island developing states; too often they have been excluded from important discussions by the science community, and this is therefore a focus of the International Science Council — I chair a very active working party of representative scientists from those states. I would particularly argue for the need to see science given higher profile in the deliberations of the general assembly; there is barely an issue that it should confront in which cannot assist.

Over the past 18 months we have seen both the triumphs and challenges of science. The world’s biochemists, vaccinologists and infectious disease experts working with a very clear focus and with effective partnerships between academic, private sector and government produced multiple and highly effective vaccines against the coronavirus.

But at the same time public health advice has been variously received and has been politicized. The multilateral system has, as the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response pointed out, failed in many respects and despite many political protestations of intent, much of the world remains highly vulnerable to Covid. Vaccine hesitancy, misinformation, and the conversion of belief in science into a political label are generalizable concerns.

When we look back to before Covid’s appearance, we see that scientific advice of a likely emergence of a zoonotic pandemic had been repeatedly downplayed by policy makers worldwide. And as we watch the pandemic enter its chronic phase we can see the broad range of impacts on other aspects: overwhelmed health systems, poorer mental health and wellbeing, impacts on women and equity, domestic violence, disrupted education, exposure of a brutal digital divide, poverty, impacts on micro and macroeconomics, disruptions in global trade, an overload on policy bandwidth, and eroded trust between citizen and state. Fear, anger and frustration have risen, and social cohesion is undermined. Geostrategically, it has accelerated global fragmentation.

And we have to be honest: the multilateral system has shown more failings than strengths, reflecting on this increasingly fractured world and a system designed for a very different era.

When we look at the sustainability agenda, the parallels with Covid are obvious.

The International Science Council, of which I have the privilege of becoming president in 4 weeks’ time, is the global entity representing science. Its members comprise the science academies, the scientific unions, the social science associations, and many other scientific bodies. And in this context science refers to all the robust knowledge disciplines including natural, social, medical, data, technological, social science and the humanities. Over the past two years, working with the Global Forum of Funders (which the ISC convenes), the Global Research Council, and the international Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, it has explored with extensive analyses and consultation the rate limiting steps on the role of science in progressing the sustainability agenda.

There are obvious matters that national and domain focused funders must give priority to. But there also are many issues in which both transnational and transdisciplinary action is needed. The challenge is how to do this effectively and rapidly without unnecessary duplication, without leaving critical gaps and doing it in a truly inclusive manner reflecting the needs of the global commons rather than primarily meeting the needs of an individual country or agency.

The reality is that most research agencies and foundations — understandably, given their mandates — support relatively siloed research, most not really facing the needed solutions to the challenges of the global commons and matters that will define our futures. Yet it should be clear from the pandemic and indeed from climate change that the national self-interest is best served by a much more global and connected approach.

Of course, much science of a detailed nature and specific to the country/society and its context is needed, and that is essential to fund. But the reality is that the very research needed to combat the challenges to the global commons is not well identified or supported because there is no consensual process to agree what is needed and how it should be funded.  Furthermore, outside the G20 group of countries, funds for research are limited by either the very state and/or size of the economies, yet much knowledge and many key perspectives lie beyond the G20. An approach driven solely by big countries’ agendas fails the test of inclusivity and acceptability and will be confounded by geopolitics. And sadly, collaborative international research has been the first to suffer in austerity.

To make impactful progress on many of the challenges we need a genuine approach to transdisciplinary research and to promoting social science and systems-based approaches. The word transdisciplinary is frequently misunderstood. It is not simply getting scientists across disciplines to combine their findings; it is a very different modality of thinking and research. It means ab initio framing the question through multiple lenses simultaneously, and generally that means from the social sciences and humanities alongside the natural sciences. It means engaging stakeholders from the outset. Such research is very different as it is not linear as is the nature of most research, but it is likely the only way we will make real progress with policy makers and citizens on many of the issues we now face.

The hardest money for the global science system to find is the glue money to strategise, coordinate and plan. International scientific organisations themselves face major funding issues. That glue money is critical, yet agencies have found ways to fund big science infrastructure. Priorities need to be set and agreements made on who will take responsibility for what funding solutions are possible, without creating massive administrative infrastructures. There is an urgency for the key stakeholders and experts both in knowledge production and translation to agree and continue to examine what critical knowledge is needed to move ahead.

There is a cogent argument for a much more systematic process for identifying where the barriers to effective progress on the existential risks of sustainability and human development can be identified and addressed. The question is how should these be developed, funded and managed? This is a matter meriting collective action rather than traditionally siloed approaches by different funders.

We need the world’s best thinkers (not just researchers) irrespective of country to come together to identify the issues where a collective mission-led approach is most needed, to define what are the rate limiting knowledge gaps and technologies, and to support transdisciplinary and systems approaches. For it is only through such approaches that we can expect to reach adoption and uptake of the knowledge generated.

A logical approach would be that a partnership is formed between the International Science Council representing the knowledge disciplines globally, the broad mix of major science funders, both national and philanthropic, and key policy players in the multilateral system. The general assembly could assist enormously in this regard by putting global science needs on its agenda. The goal would be to agree a process to identify the key rate limiting gaps in our knowledge and its application and to suggest or provide mechanisms to fund it. The ISC will soon announce a commission headed by people well-linked to the UN system to explore this and develop a practical solution.

Finally, as the recently retired chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice I must make some additional points. Covid has shown us the centrality of science across all its domains to protecting the human and planetary condition. But the state of science inputs into policy is very patchy. Often there is no formal mechanism, no plurality of disciplines providing input, no consideration of the skills needed at the interface, and no institutional structure. This is needed at national level, particularly in foreign ministries as these largely determine action at the multilateral level.

The policy and central components of the UN system itself need to think whether its lack of formal processes to link to the science community is inhibiting global progress. The science advisory mechanism to the Secretary General, while poorly developed, was abandoned almost before it started and was not replaced. The technology facilitation mechanism was not an adequate replacement; it is not the place for that critical iterative and ongoing interface between global policy development and science. A new model is needed to ensure brokerage between the science and the multilateral system. The ISC could be a core part such as process — it sees its role increasingly as the broker between the global science community and the global policy community.

We are not far away from the planet temperature exceeding the plus 1.5°C mark. It has become increasingly clear that before that terrible milestone is reached, there are many other real risks to the human condition, political and social, which will impede progress. We must collectively take a much more holistic approach that has intent, focus, energy and urgency. It is time to think and act differently even within science, as the present system cannot achieve what is needed fast enough.

Our themes