UNESCO has published the 2021 edition of the Science Report, titled ‘The Race Against Time for Smarter Development.’ The report sheds light on countries’ experiences embarking on dual digital and green transitions in order to achieve the SDGs.  

The authors find that  COVID-19 prompted an intensified pursuit of scientific development, as managing the COVID-19 crisis required scientific backing and collaboration across government bodies, agencies and communities. This effort revealed shortcomings, the authors observe, such as the prevalence of closed science systems. The authors stress the critical need for open science systems, allowing for a more inclusive, democratic, and transparent scientific process. 

UNESCO is formulating a recommendation on open science to be considered by countries.

The report cites open science and open innovation as the main driving forces that mobilized the international scientific collaboration that produced groundbreaking findings on COVID-19. In response to this need, with 70% of scientific publications having restricted access, the report notes that UNESCO is formulating a “recommendation on open science” to be considered by member States later in 2021. 

The report also recognizes the need for scientific literacy. The public, eager to receive answers to COVID-19 related inquires, have been bombarded with deregulated information from media platforms, leading to what the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled as an “infodemic.” Understanding the gravity of misleading information, WHO released a statement calling for “access to free, factual, trustworthy and science-based information.” Moving forward, the authors caution that the role of media platforms should not be taken for granted, as there is a need for media to be pluralistic and responsible in order to protect public trust. SDG target 16.10 calls to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms.”

The report recommends teaching and learning nuanced thinking, a valuable component of scientific literacy that would improve public trust. In the authors’ view, “mental elasticity is vital when it comes to analysing options in relation to emotionally charged issues such as genetically modified crops, the implications of climate change, vaccination or the current Covid-19 pandemic.” 

SDG target 4.7 calls for “ensuring that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.” The report’s insights could point to the tools and approaches most needed to satisfy this ambition.  

The report also reviews countries’ efforts to adopt Industry 4.0, the Fourth Industrial Revolution characterized by digital technologies. Aiming to increase their economic competitiveness, Morocco, Djibouti, and Australia are among the countries striving to convert into regional digital hubs, while countries like China, Russia, and the US are competing to hold onto their leading roles within the industry. Strategies for digitization are a priority for national agendas: the authors report that between 2016 and 2020, more than 30 countries adopted dedicated strategies for artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, the report finds that out of all types of cross-cutting technology, AI and robotics were the subject of the most scientific publications across all countries. The report makes note, however, that advancements towards digitization are now taking place in accord with a green transition, due to “the rising cost of unsustainable development” and climate change.  

This UNESCO Science Report was published on 11 June 2021. The series is designed for academics, policy-makers, non-governmental communities and intergovernmental communities, as well as groups and media agencies that have interest in gaining an understanding for how science governance shapes countries’ achievement of the SDGs. [Publication: UNESCO Science Report: The race against time for smarter development]  

This article was authored by Rukiya Abdulle, MSc Candidate at the University of Toronto, & Generation 2030 and SDGs Student Associate, IISD.