UN Report Promotes Science as Key to Sustainable Development and Sound Decision-Making

Share This

Publication date: 
7 October 2016

A report published by the U.N. Scientific Advisory Board on Sept. 18 finds a need for greater integration of science into international decision-making. It also calls on the U.N. to establish international targets for national R&D funding, which the board argues will contribute to meeting U.N. sustainable development goals. 

U.S. Scientific Advisory BoardScience, technology, and innovation can be a game-changer in dealing with nearly all the most pressing global challenges…alleviating poverty, creating jobs, reducing inequalities, increasing incomes, and enhancing health and well-being,” reads the opening paragraph of a report the U.N. Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) delivered to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sept. 18. The report calls for the integration of science into all policy discussions, and implores developed and developing nations to invest strongly in basic and applied research – at a minimum of three percent and one percent of GDP, respectively – linking this metric to the global capacity for sustainable development.

Report calls for international goals for R&D funding, nine other recommendations

The report issues ten major findings and recommendations to the Secretary-General, printed verbatim below:

  1. Science is a public good, and deserves to be valued more highly, employed more widely, and used effectively by decision-makers at all levels.
  2. Science can be a game-changer in dealing with even the most pressing global challenges if it is used to its full potential at all three crucial phases: understanding the problems, formulating policies, and assuring that those policies are implemented effectively.
  3. Science should be integral – not an add-on – to all policy discussions. It should play a key role to the achievement of the 17 [UN] Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all UN member states in 2015.
  4. The burgeoning flow of scientific data – the data revolution – has great potential for good, if its availability, management, use, and growth are handled effectively.
  5. Basic research is the foundation for innovation; applied research creates products and technologies. All nations should embrace them both. Developing countries will increase their prospects for sustainable development if they fund research as a minimum of one percent of GDP. More advanced nations should invest three percent or more.
  6. To ensure a continuing flow of creative scientists, countries should strongly promote education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for all children beginning at an early age.
  7. Scientists, policymakers, and society at large need to understand each other’s perspectives; they by nature operate from different priorities and are subject different forms of accountability. They should therefore jointly contribute to an enhanced science-policy-society interface.
  8. Science can help narrow economic and opportunity gaps. Bringing together science with indigenous and local knowledge will be critical for providing the most appropriate solutions for sustainable development, particularly when it comes to implementing the [UN] Sustainable Development Goals at the local level.
  9. Science has value beyond issues that are essentially “scientific.” When tensions arise among nations, their leaders can respond far better if they understand and agree upon the scientific evidence for the root causes of those tensions.
  10. In addressing the world’s grand challenges, the United Nations should promote greater global collaboration, encourage the use of international science networks, and provide avenues for science to inform and implement policies.

In addition to these findings and recommendations, the report includes chapters on science, data, the science-policy-society interface, reducing inequalities, and the “Delphi study,” an assessment the SAB conducted in 2014 and 2015 that identified eight grand challenges for the future and the planet, among them ensuring national public investments in basic research as a fraction of GDP. 

In the chapter on science, the report observes that only a dozen countries invest over 2.5 percent of the GDP in R&D: Israel (4.2 percent), South Korea (3.6 percent), Finland (3.5 percent), Sweden (3.4 percent), Japan (3.4 percent), Germany (2.8 percent), Switzerland (2.9 percent), Denmark (2.9 percent), the U.S. (2.8 percent), Austria (2.8 percent) Singapore (2.7 percent), and Qatar (2.7 percent). The SAB warns that lack of investment in R&D by developing nations threatens to widen the income gap with richer nations even further, and calls science an “equalizer,” saying it enables all people, especially the marginalized and vulnerable.

UN Secretary-General receives report warmly

Upon receiving the report, Ban Ki-moon affirmed its main findings, saying:

We need stronger science, more connected science. We need science that is more deeply integrated with policymaking. This is critical time in human history. We are the first generation that can end extreme poverty and the last that can avert the threat of runaway climate change.

The Secretary-General established the SAB – a panel with 25 members drawn from a broad range of nations, fields, and disciplines –in January 2014. The board has since pursued its mandate “to provide advice on science, technology, and innovation for sustainable development to the UN Secretary-General and to executive heads of UN organizations,” drawing on the “collective capacity of all relevant scientific fields.” While the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has sponsored the SAB and provided secretariat functions since the board’s founding, the board is urging the U.N. to provide it with an independent source of funding “to support its work between formal meetings and facilitate the convening of board meetings in countries around the world.

The chair of the board is Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO. U.S.-based members include Susan Avery, president emeritus of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Shankar Sastry, dean of engineering at the University of California Berkeley; Gebisa Ejeta, professor of agronomy at Purdue University; Maria Ivanova, co-director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston; and Eugenia Kalnay, professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland. (Avery and Sastry represent the U.S. on the SAB, while Ejeta, Ivanova, and Kalnay represent Ethiopia, Bulgaria, and Argentina, respectively.)

Other SAB members include Vladimir Fortov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Fabiola Gianotti, director-general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); Jorg Hinrich Hacker, president of the German National Academy of Sciences; and Dong-Pil Min, professor of physics at Seoul National University.


About the author

mhenry [at] aip.org
+1 301-209-3094