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The recent ‘zero draft’ of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) document directly references the need to improve science and technology skills and capacity in developing countries, with developing country delegates to the UN hoping that those will not be sidelined or weakened in subsequent negotiations.

The Open Working Group tasked with drafting the goals after an agreement to launch the SDG process at the Rio+20 summit, in 2012, will meet again in June and July before presenting the draft document to the UN General Assembly in September.

But others say it is unclear how such improvements will be implemented and funded.

For example, Goal 9, which relates to promoting sustainable industrialisation, mentions industrial research, development and innovation, including “raising the ratio of R&D workers per one million people by x% and the share of R&D spending in GDP by y%”.

The final overarching goal, number 17, which proposes strengthening the means of implementation and global partnership for each of the other proposed 16 SDGs, also includes a target to expand “by x% globally the number of scholarships for students from developing countries to enrol in higher education programmes in developed countries and other developing countries, with a particular focus on science, engineering, health, economics, finance, management and sustainable development”.

In relation to the goal to promote sustainable industrialisation, there is a target of building “science, technology and innovation capacity in developing countries”, including technology assessment, and the research, development and adaptation of green technologies.

“What is missing is support for science, for observations, for research”

Gisbert Glaser, International Council for Science

It also calls for the UN’s planned Technology Bank and Science, Technology and Innovation Capacity Building Mechanism for developing countries to be fully operational by 2017.

But it is unclear how the proposed research would be funded, experts say.

“What is missing, and it would normally be under the means of implementation, is support for science, for observations, for research,” says Gisbert Glaser, an advisor at the International Council for Science.

And some UN delegates SciDev.Net talked to say the zero draft wording on research and capacity building is too vague.

But Farooz Ullah, executive director of the Stakeholder Forum, tells SciDev.Net: “The meat of ‘means of implementation’, including financing, capacity building, technology transfer — that will happen later.”

Referring to the intergovernmental negotiations starting this year and likely to continue until the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals in December 2015, he says: “Technology transfer will be part of the subsequent process.”

“The zero draft is essentially about what the goals are. There will be a separate document on means of implementation,” Ullah says.

The draft also refers to cooperation. Goal 17 mentions promoting “regional and international collaboration on and access to science, technology, innovation, research and knowledge sharing”.

It also includes increasing scientific knowledge and developing research capacities “to enhance the contribution of marine biodiversity to the development of developing countries”, with an emphasis on small island developing states and the least developed countries.

Many middle-income and developing countries lack the means to improve science and technology capacity, and smaller countries will find it difficult to establish research collaborations or for representatives to travel to international conferences, UN delegates tell SciDev.Net.

Glaser adds that the zero draft does not fully address possible solutions to such issues, including increasing development aid and financial flows to boost these areas.

“This is almost business as usual,” Glaser says of these aspects of the draft. “You really need to transform society and that needs better education and strong institutions.”

Link to zero draft