Goals for science in the post-2015 development agenda

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Goals for eradicating hunger show the value of benchmarks to monitor progress Copyright: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

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Making science integral to the new development agenda will need new frameworks — and new thinking about the goals.

The UN Secretary-General's high-level panel on life after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — the Post-2015 Development Agenda — held its second meeting in London at the beginning of November. It's a reminder that the time has come for all of us to plan our futures in line with the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as they take shape.

There are exciting discussions underway. The outcome document from June's Rio+20 conference makes specific reference to the role of scientific knowledge in sustainable development. [1] The high-level panel repeated this endorsement at its first meeting in New York in September, noting that decision-making based on evidence is a pillar of good governance.  

But there is a long way to go from this rhetoric to improving the interface between science and development. Although the endorsement is welcome, delegates at the Rio+20 conference did sideline science in favour of discussions on fiscal trade-offs for the green economy, and the politics of institutional manoeuvring.

Where are the science goals?

If science is to have a meaningful impact on the new SDGs, as implied in the Rio+20 outcome document, both the science and development communities need to learn from the experience of the MDGs.

The crucial lesson, perhaps unsurprisingly, emerges from the work of the Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation. One of 13 taskforces that reported on aspects of the eight MDGs, it comprised an impressive cast of academics, public policy officials and high achievers from civil society. Their report makes a compelling case for the value of science in each of the MDGs. [2]  

Significantly, it also sets out three strategic priorities for investment that should enable science to accelerate — and sustain — the development goals: infrastructure, education and business stimulation.

But there is a major problem with the report when viewed alongside the outputs from most of the other task forces: there is no clear MDG for science against which progress can be monitored. The task force on hunger, for instance, had MDG 1 (eradicating extreme hunger and poverty), MDG 4 (reducing child mortality) and MDG 5 (improving maternal health) in its sights.

If we are to improve the application of science and technology (S&T) for the post-2015 agenda, two things are required: a conceptual framework that links sustainable development and the role of S&T; and an institutional framework to help planning and delivery.

Models for a framework

The first of these is relatively easy to achieve. Here the experience of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in peacebuilding might prove instructive. This community has used six peacebuilding frameworks to audit the MDGs and make recommendations for the next generation of goals.

What is particularly interesting is the way the choice of frameworks promoted ownership by a cross-section of institutions in the sector. Where they felt the MDGs did not provide for key elements of peacebuilding they identified what was missing and earmarked these as areas to be explored in the post-2015 agenda. [3]

The S&T community has enough cross-institutional agreements and fields of specialisation to undertake a similar exercise.

There are already a number of concepts articulating the links between science and sustainable development. The UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda has prepared a 'think piece' on science, while in The Lancet, economist Jeffrey Sachs makes a compelling case for SDGs and a revolution in knowledge management. [4, 5]

Perhaps most promisingly there is the 'doughnut economics' model, developed by Oxfam, which offers an engaging vision of interdisciplinary collaboration, drawing on work by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. [6] This model acknowledges the limits to the Earth's ecosystems on the one hand, and a foundation of just and equitable social systems on the other. The space in between is what has to be negotiated for sustainable development.

The challenge, then, is to synthesise these frameworks — allowing a minimum level of consensus on each — in a way that is accessible for a development audience. A more straightforward approach might be to update the report by the Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation, asking them to review progress over the past 12 years and to turn their attention to sustainable development.

A radical rethink

Returning to the task force report brings us to another problem: while the conceptual framework is relatively clear-cut, creating the institutional space for delivery is more complicated. Science is seen more as a process indicator than a development outcome: it is the means by which food security and other targets might be achieved, not a target in itself.

This makes it more difficult to argue for the inclusion of science in the list of goals, if a list that is short and easily defensible is the aim.

In his article, Sachs argues that the SDGs will require a revolution in knowledge systems on an epoch-changing scale. Recognising the need to radically rethink the way we organise our societies and industries suggests that we need something more far-reaching than a governance goal that makes reference to decision-makers using evidence.

This argues for a fundamental rethink of the MDG structure. Perhaps the way forward could be a set of SDGs where some are outcomes for communities, such as food security and economic inclusion, and others are outcomes for experts, who would set objectives such as integrating peacebuilding and scientific research.

In this way, there would be criteria and expectations that certain issues are considered in strategies to achieve the targets. This gives us the kind of accountability for cross-cutting issues that was sorely missed with the MDGs.

Nick Ishmael Perkins
Director, SciDev.Net

Follow Nick on Twitter @Nick_Ishmael


[1] UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Future We Want – Outcome document. Paragraph 251 (2012)
[2] UN Millennium Project. Innovation: applying knowledge in development. Task Force on Science, Technology and innovation (2005)
[3] Saferworld. Approaching post-2015 from a peace perspective, Briefing (2012)
[4] UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda. Science, technology and innovation and intellectual property rights: The vision for development. Thematic Think Piece (2005)
[5] Sachs, J. D. From Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals. The Lancet 379, 2206–2211 (2012)
[6] Raworth, K. A safe and just space for humanity: Can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam Discussion Paper (2012)