Sustainable development agenda: 2030

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Science  04 Sep 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6252, pp. 1048-1050
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2333

On 25 to 27 September, United Nations member states will formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as key elements of the post-2015 development agenda (1), successors to the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that focused attention from 2000 to 2015. The final 2030 agenda text for adoption proposes 17 SDGs with 169 targets, to be supplemented in 2016 with numerous indicators. All of the text emphasizing science, technology, and innovation (STI) is most welcome but achieving desired outcomes by 2030 will require deep understanding of how to maximize the contributions of STI. Having had the privilege of addressing this topic to the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) that will oversee the SDG effort, I discuss areas that I believe are essential to success. I focus on three issues: (i) using the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) process to bridge SDGs and scientific communities, (ii) choosing targets, indicators, and roadmaps related to STI, and (iii) the imperative of building knowledge-based societies.

Milk chiller for farmers.

In Motur, Tamil Nadu, India, Promethean Power System's Rapid Milk Chiller chills milk instantly to 4°C (39°F), uses a thermal battery instead of diesel fuel, and can chill up to 1000 liters of milk per day in areas with intermittent grid power. Sorin Grama, cofounder of Promethean Power, and Karthik Chandrasekar of Sangam, an investor, are testing the first of more than 100 milk chillers placed in rural India.


BRIDGE SCIENCE AND SDGs. Science can contribute to achieving the SDGs in four general areas: what science can say about (i) challenges, (ii) actions that can make a difference, (iii) monitoring progress, and (iv) innovative solutions (see the photos). Preparatory materials for the UN Summit include an important document, the 2015 GSDR, prepared by UN staff and agencies to highlight and strengthen the “science-policy interface” (2). The 2015 GSDR, to be a forerunner of future editions, highlights an integrative perspective; linkages among SDGs; and cross-cutting issues, such as disaster risk reduction and new data approaches for monitoring. The report also illustrates the value of in-depth assessments, e.g., a chapter on oceans with links to health and human welfare.

The focus on an integrative perspective and interconnected system of SDGs should continue in future versions of the GSDR. However, incorporating STI will require in-depth assessment of what science can contribute to each SDG, combined with periodic evaluation of progress. Chapter 5 on “Economic growth, inclusive and sustainable industrial development, and sustainable consumption and production” in the 2015 GSDR is a good start on analysis for SDG 8 (sustainable economic growth) and SDG 9 (industrialization and innovation).

The GSDR process could remain a platform for ongoing interaction between scientists and policy-makers, which would help the HLPF develop a robust “science advisory ecosystem.” This ecosystem should include soliciting advice and insights from individuals and institutions, both within and beyond the UN and its member governments. More and better mechanisms are needed to capture relevant insights from civil society's institutions and the public (e.g., commission independent studies, sponsor workshops, seek crowd-sourced input).

The HLPF might consider having draft GSDR chapters crowd-sourced from respected scientific institutions at the international and national level. The UN could ask them to use their own resources and peer-review processes to produce draft chapters for the GSDR on particular issues where they have great expertise. The UN might also ask countries to prepare their own national sustainable development reports (as China has done) (3). Governments could ask their independent scientific institutions, such as national academies, to produce such reports. Through this process, countries will learn from each other and provide valuable input for the GSDR. The Secretary General's Scientific Advisory Board could be asked to review all input from countries and scientific institutions and to advise UN staff on how best to strengthen draft chapters and knit them together into an authoritative GSDR.

The UN should avoid making the GSDR a “one-off” exercise with people only paying attention episodically. The GSDR with its successor editions can be a learning process for countries, the scientific community, and the UN, as well as a tool for reaching out to the wider public. Implementation recommendations regarding STI for SDGs made by the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (4) have been adopted in the 2030 agenda, creating the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (5). This includes a new UN interagency task team, a collaborative multistakeholder forum, and an online platform—all focused on STI for SDGs. These recommendations can be integrated with the GSDR process.

Pumping for irrigation.

In 2014, Beatrice Wangari Ndichu, of Kiambum, Kenya, irrigates crops with the KickStart MoneyMaker pump to lift her family from poverty. KickStart tracks the success of its pump.


The GSDR series can be useful to keep the world engaged for making progress on the SDGs. It can strengthen the science-policy interface in every country, as well as at the UN. It can help every country focus on becoming a knowledge-based society where science informs important policy decisions.

TARGETS, INDICATORS, ROADMAPS. The aspirational SDGs encompass almost every issue that can be considered relevant to sustainable development, which is both the strength and weakness of the 2030 agenda. An initial step could be to develop roadmaps for each of the 17 SDGs as plans to stimulate appropriate actions so as to achieve desired outcomes at national and international levels. Because of linkages among SDGs, each roadmap will need to take into account interdependences and trade-offs.

Each government in the 2030 agenda sets its own national targets; thus, roadmaps will first need to be developed at the national level. The task at the international level becomes how to be most helpful to countries so they can benefit from each other's experiences and knowledge. The GSDR effort and the Technology Facilitation Mechanism can become useful for advising countries on roadmaps, including providing examples for countries in special situations.

The targets for some SDGs are stronger than for others. The best, such as for SDG 3 on health, highlight relevant issues and provide a detailed guide for concrete action. Others are so general as to be less useful for stimulating focused, effective actions. Producing a detailed action plan for achieving each SDG will require deeper analysis and integration. The current targets are useful but do not encompass all relevant considerations necessary for achieving their goals.

Contributions of STI for achieving each SDG are already important components of global efforts related to SDG 2 (hunger and food security), SDG 3 (health), SDG 6 (water), SDG 7 (energy), SDG 13 (climate change), SDG 14 (oceans), and SDG 15 (terrestrial ecosystems). Insights from the social sciences have been important, particularly for SDG 4 (education), SDG 5 (gender equality), and SDG 16 (peaceful and inclusive societies). Many indicators will likely be chosen from measures already developed by natural and social sciences.

Remaining goals related to economic growth and inclusive prosperity include SDG 1 (poverty), SDG 8 (sustainable economic growth), SDG 9 (industrialization and innovation), SDG 10 (inequality), and SDG 12 (sustainable consumption and production). SDG 11 (cities) and SDG 17 (means of implementation) cut across all of the SDGs. I see eight targets among these seven SDGs that provide the best guidance to generate the greatest contribution of STI: 8.3, 9.5, 9.b and 9.c (below 9.5), 17.6, 17.8, 17.18, 17.19.

For example, targets 9.5 and 9.b should encourage countries to propose aspirational goals for national public and private investment in research and development (R&D) as a percentage of gross national product (GNP). The most innovative countries make the greatest investment in R&D as a percentage of GNP; this type of investment can be increased in most countries to produce benefits greater than their costs. (6) There is also substantial correlation between the most innovative countries and the least corrupt countries (7). Target 8.3 is focused on job creation and entrepreneurship, especially in small- and medium-sized industries. Target 9.c emphasizes information and communications technology (ICT) and universal and affordable access to the Internet. It will be important to have indicators focused here, even if countries set their own numerical targets.

The concept of the “global technology facilitation mechanism” in target 17.6 is explained in some detail in the 2030 agenda, but the concept of “technology bank” in target 17.8 is not defined. Rather than an unworkable and unrealistic “technology bank,” focus could be instead on a “data bank” providing information and knowhow combined with STI and ICT capacity-building efforts. Targets 17.18 and 17.19 emphasize support of quality data and statistics in developing countries.

Targets for SDGs 1, 10, 11, and 12 miss some of the most meaningful ways that STI can contribute. In SDGs 1 and 10, the role of STI for dealing with poverty and inequality for the least-developed countries is not highlighted in the targets. The importance of STI for achieving these goals (as seen with mobile phones in Africa) has been emphasized in the work of development agencies of several countries (e.g., Canada's International Development Research Center and U.S. Agency for International Development's Global Development Lab).

The concept of “smart cities”—maximizing STI and new data sources to enhance management of cities for economic, social, and environmental goals—is missing in targets for SDG 11. For SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production, there is encouragement of “resource efficiency” in targets 12.2 to 12.5 (as well as in targets 8.4 and 9.4), but except for target 12.a there is little emphasis on the crucial role of STI capacity for achieving greater resource efficiency.

KNOWLEDGE-BASED SOCIETIES. The importance of STI capacity-building and wider global availability of knowledge and technologies are acknowledged in the “means of implementation” section of the 2030 agenda (8), but two sentences from an earlier draft should have been retained:

“We recognize the central role that science, technology, and innovation play in enabling the international community to respond to sustainable development challenges. We recognize the power of communication technologies, technical cooperation, and capacity building for sustainable development.”

The fundamental principles for building STI capacity are consistent with the SDGs, but highlighting these principles would have been useful: strengthening educational systems from grade school to graduate school (SDGs 4 and 5); supporting students pursuing science and technology (SDGs 4, 5, 8, and 9); supporting and linking R&D in universities, national laboratories, and private companies, and enhancing international STI collaboration (SDGs 8 and 9 and paragraphs 67 and 68 of the 2030 agenda); strengthening government policies and investments to facilitate a competitive, “bottom-up” innovative ecosystem (SDGs 8, 9, 16 and 17); promoting the rule of law, reducing corruption, and developing effective and accountable institutions (SDG 16); and creating a robust “science advisory ecosystem” for providing scientific evidence to inform public-policy decisions (SDGs 1 to 17). Every country needs STI-competent people and institutions in order to use existing, as well as to create new, knowledge and technologies.

The landmark 1987 Bruntland Report defined Sustainable Development by stating that it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [see ¶ 7 of (9)]. The critically important role of STI could have been signaled by a slight altering of its definition to say “meets the needs of the present while expanding the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Our greatest legacy to future generations, in addition to avoiding wars and conflicts, may be building knowledge-based societies and accelerating expansion of scientific knowledge and useful technologies. The post-2015 development agenda can be as important for supporting the development of knowledge-based and innovative societies as for solving our current global challenges and making near-term progress on the 17 SDGs.

References and Notes

  1. See ¶ 70 of (1) and ¶ 114 to ¶ 124 of (4).
  2. See ¶ 62, ¶ 63, ¶ 67, and ¶ 68 of (1).
  3. UN, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future; www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf.
  4. Acknowledgments: W.C. thanks G. Dana of the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State and D. O'Connor, R. A. Roehrl, and F. Soltau of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs for valuable insights.
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