Q&A on science advice and the development goals

Men by the Ganges_Atul Loke_Panos
Copyright: Atul Loke/Panos

Speed read

  • UNESCO’s Scientific Advisory Board is busy working on its first set of papers
  • It aims to help make rational decisions to promote sustainable development
  • Its role won’t end with the SDGs, it will stretch to implementation too

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Twenty-six eminent scientists from across the world and across scientific disciplines are advising the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and the executive heads of UN organisations on sustainable development issues.

The Scientific Advisory Board, launched last year and hosted by UNESCO, is busy writing its first papers. SciDev.Net spoke to Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, one of the advisors, director-general of India’s Energy and Resources Institute, and chair of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about the board and its work in bridging science and development.

What are the hopes of the scientific advisors for the sustainable development goals?

This is a very welcome initiative, because increasingly one finds that science would, and should, have a major impact on policies, particularly on issues that are not necessarily addressed by business or national governments, and where there is clearly a need for an international initiative, particularly under the umbrella of the UN.

Our expectation is that we would be able to identify specific areas where science and knowledge can help to come up with rational decisions by which sustainability can be achieved across the globe in all human activities. So that’s our broad aspiration or our broad hope. But, of course, much depends on how we are able to make sure that there is a link between science and policymaking.

What have the advisors recommended to the UN?

That’s still a work in progress. Papers are being written, and are taking shape, and then some kind of  summary will be prepared. The director-general of UNESCO, who is the person in the UN who is responsible for this initiative, will submit them to the UN secretary-general.

Let me go back to the history of why this body was set up. After the Rio+20 summit, it was felt that the UN secretary-general should get sustained and all-round scientific advice to ensure sustainable development in global activities.

And the debate, in which I also deliberated, was whether it should be one individual, or a body, or a small group. And it was my view, and also the view of the others, that, perhaps a single individual, no matter how competent or excellent they are, may not be able to bring together all the different disciplines that are required to focus on sustainability in a scientific context.

So, the UN secretary-general set up this scientific advisory board. And we are all working on it, on our tasks and, hopefully, will have our outputs ready soon.

One example that is often quoted is that of the IPCC, where you have the science providing knowledge to policymakers, and there is a link between science and policymakers. We really need to look at the physical sciences, the biological sciences, engineering and technology, and how they connect with sustainable development. So it is too early to come up with any specific recommendation, but we will be covering the whole field.

Is there enough recognition and support for science in the zero draft of SDGs?

I think so. All the discussions have a very clear on the scientific basis. It may not be stated explicitly, but what's being put forward is the result of a fair amount of scientific material that is already available. So I will say, by and large, yes, there is enough support for science in the zero draft.

Would you like to see more, or greater role of science, since you said ‘by and large’?

Once the SDGs are formulated and accepted, it seems to me that the role of science would not end there. Its role will be extended further, because you would have to carry out evaluation of progress, and you would need to make sure that new scientific inputs keep coming in.

So, it seems to me, that while in the formulation stage there has to be adequate recognition of science, it is also very important to see that during the implementation phase, we have adequate involvement of scientific communities.

Even in terms of measuring progress, when you get down to specific implementation measures, that’s where you will have to harness scientific expertise to a much greater extent. Expertise will have to come not only at the broad aggregate level, but also right down to the grassroots level. And that’s why I would submit that we will also need to strengthen or develop new institutions across the world.

Take the Indian situation where we are trying to clean up the Ganges. That’s going to take a huge amount of scientific capability and, perhaps, the strengthening of institutions by which the scientific capacity is created. Maybe colleges, universities and other bodies will have to get involved, which means that we will have to create enough expertise and capacity to deal with something like cleaning the Ganges. 

To implement the SDGs, you will need science and you will need scientific institutions to get involved.

Frankly, if science is missing from the implementation, it will remain largely hollow. It’s very important to see that science is a continuing part of what gets implemented.

Was this a drawback with the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals?

No, I don't think so. Because the MDGs had very clearly specified goals and targets, where, by and large, the institutions that were required were already there. It was really a question of providing greater emphasis, improving efficiency of operations. But to my mind, the SDGs would require a greater amount of science than the MDGs did.

Should there be a specific SDG on scientific research and building scientific capacity in the developing world?

Yes, but that will have to come from the developing world itself. We can link up with developed countries and international organisations. But if you go back to Pandit Nehru’s [India’s first Prime Minister] time, he used to talk about the importance of developing a scientific temper. Now that really has to be thread that has to be running through everything that we do.

I am not sure whether we can set up a specific goal at the global level. Because after all, science has to be relevant to the conditions that it will be utilised in, and that varies from country to country. Therefore, I believe that there is no substitute for developing national capacity in the field of science and technology. And I hope some of the SDGs induce that kind of an initiative in developing countries.

The goals should act as a trigger by which countries equip themselves, create the capacity and create the know-how. This will provide clarity to the SDGs, but also ensure the required scientific inputs for their implementation.

Are the advisors optimistic that they can influence policy and also get more recognition for science and a bigger role for research?

That’s why they joined as part of the advisory board. I attended the initial meeting and the spirit there was very strong and enthusiastic. So, I imagine they would be very optimistic, otherwise, why would they be there?

Is the scientific advisory board working well, and is it collaborating with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Major Group on Science and Technology at the UN?

I think it’s too early to do that. The UN Sustainable Solutions Network really has to get going, it has barely been launched. It is also spread all over the world. So it’s very difficult for a body like a scientific advisory body to link up with them.

And we have our hands full with what we have to do. We have to complete our initial tasks which consists of writing a set of papers which have to be brought together. In carrying out our current work, we are looking at what is happening worldwide.

It’s not an exercise that is being carried out in isolation, and in ignorance of how science and policy, and science and development, are working together. I am not too sure whether the scientific advisory board needs the relationship with the network. I think these are two separate activities and one can do without the other.