How science can put the Sustainable Development Goals back on track

How science can put the Sustainable Development Goals back on track

on March 18, 2021

In October, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres made a series of key appointments. He tasked 15 scientists from around the world with providing policymakers with evidence, as well as their thoughts, on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This time last year, the UN’s flagship plan to end poverty and guide the world to environmental sustainability by 2030 was already off track. Since then, the pandemic has reversed most of the achievements made in the five years since countries adopted the goals.

The World Food Programme estimates that 270 million people are now at risk of starvation: double the number before the pandemic. And school closures resulting from lockdowns have set back one of the few SDGs that were within reach before the pandemic — the goal to achieve universal primary education. In December, the UN’s science and cultural organization UNESCO estimated that some 320 million children were out of school, an increase of 90 million in just one month.

This is the situation facing the researchers whom Guterres has tasked with researching and writing the second UN Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) — the first was published in 2019. They have been drawn from all over the world and span a range of disciplines, including climate change, ecology, environmental economics, ethics, health policy, infectious diseases, oceanography, the governance of international organizations and the study of science and development.

The importance of this partnership between research and action cannot be overstated. At present, UN organizations such as the children’s charity UNICEF and the World Food Programme are operating in emergency mode. Research often suffers when budgets are stretched and personnel have to be redeployed — in this case to more pandemic-facing roles. But these organizations still need research. They still need to be able to draw on people who have the time to think and gather evidence; people with the time to reflect on that knowledge before providing advice and answering questions from their colleagues on the frontline, and from policymakers and colleagues in other roles.

Such hands-on research will not be for the GSDR authors to do, but they could help UN agencies and countries to think about how to meet their research needs during the pandemic. Researchers need to test different strategies to help children whose families lack access to smartphones, laptops and broadband. They need to study the effect the pandemic is having on health systems. And, as governments rush to revive economic growth, there is a mountain of research to be done on the pandemic’s economic impact and on how to make recovery as green as possible. The SDGs will not be met unless research can shine a light on these and other issues.