Participants discussed how by working together we can “solve our most critical sustainable development challenges” and achieve the targets set out in the SDGs, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Key takeaways included the need for strong engagement with people and communities, the importance of data availability and access to improve strategies for bringing scientific communities and data users together, and the need to “cut across silos” in communicating scientific findings.
A high-level global conference, convened by Springer Nature and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) with its Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS), discussed the role of science, technology, and public policy in achieving the SDGs. Panelists focused on ways to facilitate dialogue among researchers, policymakers, and communities to advance sustainability goals in the areas of food systems and land use, urbanization, and health.
The conference themed, ‘Science for a Sustainable Future,’ took place virtually on 8 October. Researchers came together with UN officials, government representatives, civil society leaders, experts, and policymakers to discuss how by working together we can “solve our most critical sustainable development challenges” and achieve the targets set out in the SDGs, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
Ahead of the conference, Jeffrey Sachs, SDSN President and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, US, and Magdalena Skipper, Editor-in-Chief, Nature, issued a joint statement warning that our progress on the SDGs “lags far behind,” with the COVID-19 pandemic exposing the gaps between the latest scientific developments and policymaking. Highlighting “increasingly frequent zoonotic diseases,” climate change, biodiversity destruction, and “unprecedented” income and wealth inequalities among today’s challenges, the statement identifies the need to find a more inclusive path to solving problems that brings together scientists and technologists with policymakers and stakeholders, “listens across the generations,” and includes under-represented and marginalized voices.
Opening the event, Sachs said deep transformations are needed to address multiple global challenges to sustainable development and establish shared prosperity, social justice, environmental sustainability, and decent governance. He called for: technological pathways to sustainability that improve well-being and align with sustainable development; engaging natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, and human sciences in an interdisciplinary manner; engaging multiple stakeholders, including science and engineering communities, policymakers, and civil society; and enabling a better informed public to be “carriers of the ethics of the common good,” informed by science.
Guido Schmidt-Traub, SDSN Executive Director moderated a panel discussion on food systems and land use.
Michael Obersteiner, University of Oxford, highlighted the need to “bend the curve” on biodiversity. He outlined the role of quantitative assessments in bringing together stakeholders and establishing trust among them. Obersteiner said bringing local implementation to the global level through knowledge networks and feedback loops is key to accelerating transitions.
Jessica Fanzo, Johns Hopkins University, described the Food Systems Dashboard that brings together data on 175 food systems indicators. She said researchers need to better communicate their findings to policymakers, with studies integrating multiple perspectives.
Jillian Campbell, CBD, highlighted the importance of building a monitoring framework for a post-2020 biodiversity framework. She stressed the need to do more to “convince the public.”
Ashish Kothari, Environmentalist and Founder of Kalpavriksh, India, emphasized the need to engage custodians of biodiversity in decision making and establish forums where hybrid knowledge systems can be built. He stressed the need for bottom-up approaches to biodiversity management and conservation.
During discussion, panelists outlined the role of data in supporting poor countries’ efforts in the land-use sector, the need for different systems of knowledge, and the need to protect biodiversity to prevent future “zoonotic spillovers.”
Mark Fischetti, Scientific American, moderated a session on urbanization. Panelists identified challenges to sustainable urbanization, provided examples of where science made a fundamental contribution, and highlighted lessons from the global South.
Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large, Singapore, and Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at Singapore University of Technology and Design, highlighted Virtual Singapore – a three-dimensional (3D) city model tool that helps conduct virtual experiments such as planning for solar energy generation and safe cycling routes. She stressed the need to involve citizens in making cities “more livable and more lovable.”
Aromar Revi, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, identified the need to balance opportunities of urbanization against poverty and risk, and highlighted the potential of urbanization to accelerate post-COVID-19 recovery in India.
Susan Parnell, University of Bristol, urged focus on building institutions to deliver sustainable urbanization. She underscored the need to understand micro-processes and build a “cohort of people” committed to sustainable cities. Parnell warned against the “one science fits all” approach, decoupled from ethics and robust methods.
Luis Hernán Sáenz, Cómo Vamos Cities Network, Colombia, highlighted the Urban Footprint study and the Multidimensional Urban Poverty Index. He called for promoting more effective governance in line with SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals) by including citizen science to leave no one behind and improve evidence-based decision making.
A panel session on health, moderated by Amy Maxmen, Nature, focused on the role of science and policy in achieving SDG health targets, and lessons learned from the COVID-19 response.
Chikwe Ihekweazu, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, called for mechanisms to push science to answer pressing questions rather than letting it “trickle down” into policymaking.
John Reeder, World Health Organization (WHO), urged researchers to provide tailored responses to the questions policymakers are asking, focusing on the specific context. He said scientists need to articulate priorities that are translatable into real public health impact.
Miriam Were, Champions for an AIDS-Free Generation, pointed to the lack of people’s perspectives in discussions on science and policymaking, and urged focus on community access to basic health services.
David Heymann, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, highlighted the importance of communicating scientific findings to those affected by their impacts.
Panelists further highlighted the need to: continue to inspire young people to choose science as a career path; and promote mentoring programs that pair researchers in industrialized and developing countries throughout the project cycle and beyond.
In closing, Skipper and Schmidt-Traub highlighted key takeaways, including the need for strong engagement with people and communities, the importance of data availability and access to improve strategies for bringing scientific communities and data users together, and the need to “cut across silos” in communicating scientific findings. Skipper said a white paper based on these outcomes will provide a set of recommendations on how to achieve better integration of science, policy, and community. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources] [Science for a Sustainable Future Webpage]