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How scientists can help make the sustainable development goals a reality

1 Sep 2017 - 09:15

The High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), convened by the United Nations Economic and Social Council, is the central platform of the United Nations to follow up and review the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The theme of the 2nd HLPF, which took place 10-19 July 2017, was Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world, focusing particularly on SDGs 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, and 14 (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/hlpf). At this forum, political representatives from UN member states, and stakeholder representatives from different sectors met to participate in plenary sessions that involved reviewing the implementation of these SDGs, exploring and leveraging the interlinkages between these goals, and to discuss emerging issues in the science –policy interface. Further deliberations included voluntary national reviews of national progress on SDGs implementation (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/hlpf#vnrs).


Three key take home points from these sessions were as follows:

1. Interactions matter: Immediately apparent is that whilst the SDGs spell out discrete goals, most goals are interrelated. Accordingly achieving each goal requires addressing other goals. For example, whilst SDG3 relates directly to health, many SDGs including 11 impact on health. Trickle down health is a fallacy. Instead, health will need to be directly addressed, often by bringing uneasy bedfellows together. A detailed analysis of SDG 2, 3, 7, 14, and their interactions are presented in the recently launched ICSU report https://www.icsu.org/publications/a-guide-to-sdg-interactions-from-science-to-implementation.

2. Beware of averages!: Equity does not happen by accident. In the development and implementation of solutions to address these SDGs, it is important to have equity at the fore; with intentional approaches to ensure that disparities in different populations and sub-populations are adequately addressed.

3. Health needs to be more sophisticated in advocating for health in political space: Given the fact that the majority of factors that influence health lie outside the health sector, in order to address population health, the health sector will need to proactively engage with policy and politics; and develop strategies to advocate for health in all policies.


Critical to these 3 lessons is the need for a seamless science policy interface to ensure evidence-informed strategies and policy. Accordingly the final session at the end of the week tackled emerging issues in this interface. These included:

  1. Tackling the trade offs between science and policy: Whilst these trade offs are often considered in the context of SDG interactions, there is a need to consider trade offs and benefits for science policy interaction. Different and sometimes competing interests and incentives mean that there will also be trade offs and benefits to science / policy interaction on both sides. In order for meaningful engagement to occur and to optimize the potential for science and evidence to inform policy, it is important that we acknowledge the trade offs and benefits. Whilst the benefit of engaging with policy, the opportunity for impactful research beyond the lab, is evident, siloed incentives within academia often mean that engaging with policy can be experienced as a trade off for scientists. Conversely, for policymakers, timelines that do not match the policy need may be experienced as a trade off in an environment where evidence is required at a faster pace. In order to overcome these trade offs, alongside equipping scientists with these skills at an early stage, academic institutions need to recognize the value of these interactions as a key part of impactful scientific endeavor. There is an opportunity to bring together and equip early and mid-career scientists and policymakers alike to bridge the gap through addressing the trade offs of both ends. These initiatives are starting to emerge: The Global Young Academy, (globalyoungacademy.net), which aims to impact on the norms and expectations of science and scientists in a changing world, is doing just this by working to develop learning modules that address these very issues. Driven by the understanding that these trade offs are context dependent, the GYA have commissioned regional global state of young scientists studies to explore barriers and potential solutions in the ASEAN region (https://globalyoungacademy.net/events/global-state-of-young-scientists-glosys-in-asean/), with work on the African region beginning. These initiatives are happening at global and national levels, largely outside traditional academic institutions, and should be explored and supported.
  2. New forms of intersectoral dialogues and data sharing are required: The complex interactions between the SDGs require intersectoral approaches. As such, health scientists will need to work with health and non-health policy makers; and health policymakers will need to work with researchers from non-health disciplines. Furthermore, a systems approach is required. For example, strategies to improve urban health will need to engage with a diverse range of sectors including housing, transport, food, and trade.  So it is important to ask whether there are any barriers to these intersectoral dialogues within academic, civil society, or policymaking spheres, and how knowledge can be shared. An example of an approach to cross-pollinating health across sectors is the NCD policy briefs and posters developed by the UN Interagency TaskForce for NCDs for different policy sectors (http://www.who.int/ncds/un-task-force/policy-briefs/en/). The Voluntary National Reviews at the HLPF could also be harnessed as a tool to develop mechanisms that foster, and share, interstitial science to ensure evidence being generated address interlinkages, and support processes that support intersectoral science policy interaction at the community, city, national and regionals levels.
  3. Changing skill sets needed by scientists: Another emerging issue is that scientists require a different skill set to engage with societal challenges and global policy such as the SDGs. These include complexity science; engaging with communities; understanding of science advice ecosystem. Innovation in STEM education is therefore required. An example of this innovation is the 10academy (http://10academy.org/), an initiative in Africa to identify and train STEM graduates to have impact to address African challenges. The programme seeks to equip fellows with modern skills including communication, and then places them in paid internships. Another example is the Science Leadership programmes that the Global Young Academy has being involved in setting up, in Africa (http://www.futureafrica.science/index.php/leadership-programmes/aslp) and ASEAN regions. These kinds of initiatives are vital to ensure future scientists are equipped with the necessary skills to engage beyond the lab. A follow on emerging issue is how such initiatives can be harnessed to connect science to policy, and how these can be scaled up in order to foster the benefits and limit the trade offs of science/ policy interaction.

    Achieving the SDGs will require political will, policy coherence and significant investment. This will require new forms of co-created knowledge from diverse sources and coherent policy visions for implementation of sustainable solutions. In an ever-changing, increasingly complex world, there is a crucial role for academics and researchers to play to inform these strategies if the legitimacy and relevance of the academic pursuit is to be upheld.

Tolu Oni was lead discussant in the HLPF plenary session on Science-Policy interface and emerging issues. A summary of her speech was recently published in The Conversation https://theconversation.com/how-scientists-can-help-make-the-sustainable-development-goals-a-reality-81488

As countries adopt strategies that will help them meet the targets of the sustainable development goals by 2030, there is a crucial role for academics and researchers to play to inform these strategies.

Achieving the goals in the next 13 years requires political will, policy coherence and significant investment. But there is also a need for a seamless interface between science and the policy that it can influence to ensure that strategies and policies that are adopted are informed by evidence.

For scientists to be involved in this process and engage with the societal challenges and global policy needs such as the sustainable development goals, they need a different skill set. These include understanding how to engage with communities, the structures and systems in place for science advice and how they work, and how to investigate complex interacting issues.


Interlinked goals

Each of the 17 goals have distinct functions but most are interrelated. Achieving each goal requires addressing other goals. Take for example, goal three, which relates directly to health. There are many other goals that have an impact on health. Like goal 11 which relates to sustainable cities.

There are two lessons to be learnt here.

The first is that the concept of trickle down health is a fallacy. In other words, there is a need to move from simply hoping that addressing, for example, economic challenges, will automatically result in positive health outcomes, to explicitly considering the health implications of strategies in other sectors. Health will need to be directly addressed, often by bringing uneasy bedfellows together.

The second is that the complex interactions between the goals require an intersectoral approach. This means that health scientists will need to work with health and non-health policy makers; and health policymakers will need to work with researchers from non-health disciplines.

Lets get a practical example. A strategy to improve urban health will need to engage with a diverse range of sectors including housing, transport, food, and trade. So it is important to ask whether there are any barriers to these intersectoral dialogues within academic, civil society, or policymaking spheres, and how knowledge can be shared.

One example of an approach to cross-pollinating health across sectors is the NCD Toolkit developed by the UN Interagency Task Force for NCDs for different policy sectors. These toolkits provide the information required by non-health sectors to better understand the health implications of their actions, and to suggest strategies that could contribute to improved population health. http://www.who.int/ncds/un-task-force/policy-briefs/en/).


Trade offs and benefits

The SDGs are known to interact, and these interactions necessitate consideration of the trade offs and benefits that emerge from these interactions. The science--policy interaction is no different. In addition to the context of SDG interactions, there is also a need to consider the trade offs and benefits for science policy interaction. Different and sometimes competing interests and incentives mean that there will also be trade offs and benefits to science / policy interaction for all stakeholders involved. For scientists, the siloed incentives within academia often mean that engaging with policy and working on research that has an impact beyond the lab can be seen or experienced as a trade off. And for policymakers, timelines that do not match the policy needs may be a trade off in an environment where evidence is required at a faster pace.

The trade offs must be acknowledged to engage meaningfully and to optimise the potential for science and evidence to inform policy.

To overcome these trade offs, scientists must be equipped with these skills at an early stage and academic institutions need to recognise the value of these interactions as a key part of their scientific endeavours.

Such initiatives are starting to emerge. The [Global Young Academy](globalyoungacademy.net) aims to change the expectations of scientists in a changing world by developing learning modules that address these very issues.

This young academy has also commissioned regional global state of young scientists studies to explore barriers and potential solutions in the [ASEAN region](https://globalyoungacademy.net/events/global-state-of-young-scientists-glosys-in-asean/), with work on the African region beginning. These kinds of initiatives are vital to ensure future scientists are equipped with the necessary skills to engage beyond the lab.