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A functioning international science-policy interface will be essential for implementing the post-2015 development agenda and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Science-policy interface is a process between scientists and policymakers, aiming at an exchange and co-evolution of knowledge to improve policy decisions and increase policy relevance of research. Currently, the interface is not as good as it could be, and far from what it should be.

We should start by improving the existing mechanism such as the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group, which has inadequately represented this community and has been weak in pushing scientific knowledge in the process from Rio+20 to the current final draft of the SDGs. They are part of the problem but could become a stepping stone to a solution.

UN major group system

The major group system was an outcome of the first UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Nine sectors were identified as the main channels through which broad participation would be facilitated in UN activities related to sustainable development.

Like any other element in the intergovernmental negotiation process, UN member states ultimately decide upon the modalities of participation that are coordinated by the UN Division for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the organising partners.

For the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group, the organising partners are the International Council for Science, the World Federation of Engineering Organizations and the International Social Science Council.

In the short term, a few tweaks to how the science and technology major group functions would be welcome. Admittedly, for many, this might seem an unlikely institution to place any hope in.

First, the whole major group system is flawed with design errors, resulting in serious questions about its inclusiveness and accountability. Second is the subpar performance of the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group in the post-2015 process.

The structural problems with the major group system can neither be brushed aside nor easily resolved. So, we have to deal with what we have. Beyond the major groups, an acronym soup is being concocted with the likes of the UN Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board or the various high-level advisory groups.

No role or rights

The issue with all of these, however, is that they have no formal role or rights in the intergovernmental negotiation process, which in the end matters most. Their influence or even mere existence depends on the grace of the secretary-general or the willingness to listen by the UN system and member states.

The performance issue with the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group can be illustrated with a few figures from the UN Open Working Group (OWG) process. During the 13 sessions, they only made 10 statements (compared with the Major Group Women, 45; Major Group NGOs, 16; Major Group Business and Industry, 15), unevenly distributed over 4 sessions, covering only 4 out of 26 topics.

In addition, none of the statements in the major group compilation summaries created after some OWG sessions is attributed to the scientific and technological community.

Of course, the quantity of statements has no correlation with quality and hardly any, with impact.  However, it indicates a comparatively low level of active engagement. A lot, if not most, of the work happened through briefing papers, in the corridors and during side-events is a correct counter argument.

Recommendations for improvement

Three relatively simple and quick improvements could change the Major Group Scientific and Technological Community from being a part of the problem into a stepping stone to a more systemic and fundamental improvement of the post-2015 science-policy interface.

1. A stronger voice

In a Q&A with SciDev.Net, Jeffrey Sachs said “because this is a noisy world, scientists need to find ways to make sure they are heard (…) [in] a world that has every capacity to ignore the scientific evidence (…)”. A stronger, more permanent presence and the use of buttonholing specialists (lobbyists, if you like) and science communicators would make a real difference already.

2. A sharper timbre

Too often, the interventions are politically safe and non-specific calls for action (“one of the biggest challenges of our time”) or general statements not directly linked to the agenda item on the table. How can we expect policymakers to distinguish this tone in the cacophony of interest groups? A concentration on the unique selling point — high quality scientific knowledge — is needed.

3. A better tone

Although we know from research that policymakers are more likely to listen to opportunities than constraints, too often the interventions have been about bleak futures beyond planetary boundaries instead of those research findings and technological innovations that could help achieve a better Anthropocene.

Sure, these are just incremental improvements that neither address underlying structural deficits nor significantly and systemically advance and change the role, quality and impact of the scientific community in the science-policy interface for the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda.

However, with only 15 years to go to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals — not a long time in the scientific realm — we cannot ignore the low hanging fruit.

Ruben Zondervan is the executive director of the Earth System Governance Project, based at the International Project Office hosted by Lund University, Sweden. He is a specialist in international social science research management with experience in policy advisory and analysis, science communication, international network development, fundraising, strategic planning, and project and event management, and has a strong interest in politics of science and science of politics. Twitter: @RZondervan

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.