By Florence Chaverneff, PhD
The predominant role that Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) play in a nation’s general economic health need not be emphasized. Yet, in developing countries, STI are often neglected, as scarce resources are used for more pressing matters (e.g. health and education). Although it might be hard to reconcile the short-term benefits of investing in STI, one cannot deny the importance of such efforts to attain sustainable development. And this is precisely what the United Nations (UN) have long regarded as a durable answer to eradicate poverty and hunger in the developing world. So, knowing the importance of STI in promoting a country’s development, why is there so much resistance to support these endeavors?
The UN’s Developmental Goals
In September 2000, ensuing the Millenium Summit, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the ‘Millenium Declaration’. This document, through eight Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), defined the role of the UN for the first fifteen years of this new era, in accordance with the organization’s original principles defined in its 1945 Charter. In an effort to set a post-2015 agenda for the UN, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were outlined in June 2012, at the issue of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. An Expert Group Meeting on Science and SDGs was held in New York in March 2013, aiming to get “the scientific community to discuss among itself how science can best inform the SDG process, and for the scientific community to initiate a dialogue with the policy-makers, who are engaged in intergovernmental deliberations on the SDGs”. The resulting document stressed the importance of including the scientific community in the designing of goals and policies that were to be the framework for SDGs, and the 10 year ‘Future Earth Initiative‘ was launched with the objective, on an international scale, to ‘strengthen partnership between scientists and policy-makers to provide sustainability options’.
That’s all good.
Shortly after this Expert Group Meeting, the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) convened, to determine the impact of STI on each of the MDGs. The summary of this meeting states that “STI and culture can significantly impact each of the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. Specifically, STI drives the dynamic transformation of economies, through productivity growth, which influences economic growth. STI also affects economic growth through the knowledge spill-overs it generates between countries, firms, and industries.” and that “STI and culture should be clearly articulated as enablers for sustainable development and important elements of the post-2015 development agenda”. A UN Open Working Group (OWG) issued a ‘zero draft’for the SDGs in June 2014, document which also presented STI as key in the designing, supporting and implementing of the proposed SDGs.
That’s even better.
Surprisingly, however, the role of STI was significantly weakened in a later draft of SDGs released by the OWG last July. It took extensive lobbying by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to re-establish the place of STI (through developing both capacities and international cooperation for science and research) as a means for developing nations to attain sustainable development.
From a global to a local perspective
When asked about the role of academic and research communities in SDGs, Jeffrey Sachs, the UN’s Secretary General’s special advisor on the MDGs and director of the UN initiative, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN http://unsdsn.org/ ), stated that: “There are two phases in the work of SDSN, but they are overlapping. One is to help the process of setting meaningful goals […]”. The second is to create a network — mainly centered around universities, but also research institutions, national laboratories, and partnering with companies in different sectors — a network that will be there for the period of the SDGs to help with implementation”.
There is a need worldwide for scientists and policy-makers alike, to re-think the role of science in enabling sustainability. Global scientific action means much more than pooling of resources, knowledge, policies and actions to curtail climate change. Capacity-building efforts and establishment of scholarships in STI fields to train a new generation of scientists in developing nations are mandatory measures if we are to achieve a more equitable world.