23 September 2017
The scientific and technological community in the Sustainable Development Goal process
Zondervan, Ruben. 2017. The scientific and technological community in the Sustainable Development Goal process. Environmental Scientist, 26(3): 34-37
This article considers the engagement of the scientific community with the UN SDG negotiations, and how science could operate better within such processes. It is available open access here.
A functioning international science-policy interface will be essential for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or Goals). Since the 2012 United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) when the idea for the SDGs was first placed on the international agenda and their subsequent adoption in September 2015, the science-policy interface has been far from optimal.
With the need for and importance of science consistently included in all conference declarations since the initial 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, and through a formal role in the OWG process, the Scientific and Technological Major Group was in a good starting position to feed state-of-the-art scientific knowledge into the intergovernmental negotiations that shaped the SDGs. A quick glance at the number of official statements indicates however, that this opportunity was unfortunately not fully utilised. The SDG summit in 2015 admittedly was a celebratory event and anything but an occasion to promote the role of science or bring to bear scientific knowledge into the policy process. Nevertheless, the complete absence of any statements on behalf of the scientific community or institution is noteworthy.
Obviously, the quantity of statements has no direct correlation with quality or impact. However, the number indicates a comparatively low level of active engagement by the science and technology community. There are however two aspects that indirectly link quantity of statements to impact.
The first link between quantity and impact is institutional. The whole Major Group system is flawed with design errors resulting in serious questions about its inclusiveness and accountability. But despite the structural problems with the Major Group system which can neither be brushed aside nor be easily be resolved, it is the only formal mechanism for stakeholders’ input into the process; a mechanism which took stakeholders years of efforts, and some luck, to get established. And it is a mechanism that, despite its flaws, seems able to facilitate the uptake of stakeholders’ interest into the intergovernmental processes. The institutionalised embedding of the Major Groups in the process makes this formal mechanism quite resilient to political pressure.
It is, or should be, therefore of crucial interest to all constituencies represented in the nine Major Groups, to ensure that this mechanism, despite its flaws, is used and thereby maintained. The less activity in this mechanism, the more it will erode and potentially see its resilience crumble.
The second link between quantity and impact is procedural. In addition to being a contribution to an active Major Group system, a statement by the Scientific and Technological Major Group has additional functions. Firstly, it shows to the constituency that the Major Group is actually striving to represent its interest (and thereby increasing its legitimacy), and that scientists are willing to engage in its work or at least take note of and interest in the respective policy processes. Secondly, and more importantly, the statements (despite on average two minutes only) also indicate to the negotiators that the constituency has an interest in and wants to contribute to the agenda at hand.
From this perspective, the simple number of statements is a not only a solid proxy for the overall activity level of a Major Group, but also indirectly for its impact.
There are many aspects of the science-policy interface in the SDGs that could and should be improved, many of them independent of the Major Group. There are also several aspects of the Major Group that could be improved. But as the above reflections on the moderate, at best, activity-levels of the Scientific and Technological Major Group in the OWG process show, there is one simple improvement which could be made without any significant change to the Major Group and one that would be independent of any external dynamics; attendance of and activity during the formal sessions.
Improved attendance and activity would require moderate additional resources, but also a slight change in mentality in the scientific community in understanding the political process would help. Scientific knowledge in some sense can be seen as a special commodity. However, scientific institutions like the Scientific and Technological Major Group are just actors amongst many others in the policy process. It is not enough to point out the value of the content that scientific actors can contribute, but also the delivery of that content has to be much more aligned with the ‘policy game’.