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Post-2015 planning offers compelling messages for scientists

Speed read

  • The UN panel report lacks clear messages for engaging science

  • Collaboration can be achieved via problem-solving and funding

  • Some feel that the report's proposals could be put into practice well before 2015

A UN panel's report indicates an unfamiliarity with scientists, but there are various ways to develop collaboration.

The biggest current conversation in global development is the one about what follows the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015.

In the lead-up to this, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon convened a High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda — chaired by the presidents of Indonesia and Liberia, and the UK prime minister — to recommend a way forward. Their labours offer lessons for bridging development and science.

The panel's work appears to have been driven by two overwhelming concerns: to avoid alienating any group if possible and to produce a clear and compelling report. It is hard to take issue with either principle — and the document is a seductive read.

However, while the report offers much promise and some revolution, it is deeply political and declares itself resolutely concerned with what is possible.

This is particularly clear when we look at science's role in the post-2015 agenda. While there is much in the report calling for science's involvement, the panel appears to lack the knowledge to clearly spell out how this could be achieved.

Reconciling divergent aspirations

Both Michael Anderson of the UK Department for International Development, who was the prime minister's special envoy for the development goals, and Amina J. Mohammed, the secretary-general's special advisor on post-2015 development planning, acknowledge that work remains to reconcile the document's apparently divergent aspirations.

The two were speaking yesterday (6 June) at a London event hosted by the Royal Society, in collaboration with the British Council, the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences and SciDev.Net, to explore the report's implications for science.

Anderson was clear about what he expects from science in general: rigorous and, in some cases, sensible proxy indicators; help for policymakers in understanding risk and causal relationships; and general support in making decisions in uncertain contexts. He and Mohammed were also clear about the need to resonate with ministers who have no appetite for briefings of more than two pages and people whose daily privations do not allow them to think in research-cycle timeframes.

However, when the event's panel — which included Oxfam's Duncan Green and Beyond 2015's Dominic Haslam, and was chaired by former UK chief scientific advisor John Beddington — was asked about priority issues for science to engage around, there was no clear response.

What you have is a document that lacks clear and persuasive messages for engaging science.

One of the report's key recommendations is to continue — but expand — the framework of straightforward goals that form the MDGs, because these are easy for most people to understand. The report also makes a reasoned argument for the development community to get serious about global partnerships, the much-neglected eighth MDG.

It even specifies the range of stakeholder groups — one being scientists — that partnerships must be developed with, explaining that poverty reduction is just the beginning and that sustainable development requires us to move outside aid and work with those making a difference in areas such as business, energy and technology.

However, overall, the report struggles to frame compelling messages for those it is less used to dealing with.

Unfamiliarity with science

That is not to say that the report is silent on science and technology. It contains a brief but effective case for their role in delivering human development and provides useful examples of how they have catalysed sustainable development. It also calls for a data revolution to underpin transparency and equity.

But there is a lack of follow-through in the report that comes from a lack of familiarity and discussion with the science community. At last night's event, Duncan Green said that scientists have been crowded out by louder, clearer voices such as those in NGOs.

However, what became evident from the panel and subsequent dinner was that there are various ways to develop collaboration.

The first is to go back to the principle of speaking the language of those you seek to engage. This does not mean adopting technical terminology, but looking to the ambitions of the post-2015 agenda and identifying the problems that science can help solve. Problems lend themselves to hypotheses and reviews of existing evidence — things that scientists understand.

Secondly, it would be useful to acknowledge that funding is a key way of fostering collaboration. High-profile examples of this working for international collaboration include the particle collider at CERN that discovered the Higgs boson and the Human Genome Project. Often these have been driven by the notion that the funding required is too large for any one agency or nation.

What the report does illustrate, however, is that there are some problems where the political context is too intractable and wide-ranging for any one agency or country to take on alone.

In principle, there is still time to get things right. The report will be analysed and debated by the UN system, and subject to further consultations and working groups. There is also a separate process exploring a sustainable development agenda, which is intended to intersect with this report.

But we shouldn't wait two years to start acting on the report's recommendations. As John Beddington said, the changes in our world that the report describes are happening now and they affect us all.

The report makes clear the major transformations required to respond to such changes. A billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the past 20 years, but business as usual will not work for the next billion. When viewed from this perspective, there is an overwhelming urgency and opportunity to act now.

By the end of the evening, some research councils were considering what they could do in the next three months.

Nick Ishmael Perkins
Director, SciDev.Net

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