The challenges for developed countries

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted earlier this year, apply universally. This means that developed countries have to act domestically to reach the goals, as well as aiding developing countries.

In recognition of this we held a PolicyLab event on ‘How can science help the UK meet the SDGs?’ The panel consisted of Mr Derek Osborn CB, Dr Tim Leunig, Dr Beth Taylor and Professor Virginia Murray, and was chaired by Professor Dame Anne Mills FRS. The event was based on two reports:

  1. ‘Understanding the transformational challenges for developed countries’ by Stakeholder Forum. This report highlights the goals on climate change, energy and sustainable consumption and production as the greatest challenges for developed countries.
  2. ‘Are the rich countries ready?’ by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Bertelsmann Stiftung. This study shows that the UK currently ranks 15th of 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries on SDG performance.

For goal 12, ‘Responsible production and consumption’, Derek Osborn highlighted that developed countries are overconsuming and producing excessive amounts of waste. This is one of the largest targets for OECD countries, with greener forms of production needed.

On goal 4, ‘Quality education’, Dr Tim Leunig emphasised the challenges surrounding gender inequality in education, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. Additionally he highlighted the shortage of qualified science teachers, particularly in physics, but also the government’s schemes to try to rectify this.

Finally on goal 7, ‘Affordable and clean energy’, Dr Beth Taylor highlighted that this is another big challenge for OECD countries. We need to increase the amount of renewable energy for electricity production whilst increasing the proportion of our energy that is electric.

Panel discussion with Anne Mills

Panel discussion with Anne Mills

The role of science

It’s also important to recognise the SDGs in the context of the other UN landmarks this year: the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the UN climate change negotiations occurring in December. Both are key to making development sustainable.

The Sendai Framework recognises the importance of science in disaster risk reduction. But science, as the discussion highlighted is just as important for the SDGs. Derek Osborn emphasised that:

  • We need consistent high-quality science, like the IPCC reports, and should not neglect issues such as air quality, climate change and the oceans
  • Science should be used to help create solutions, as well as increasing our knowledge
  • Quality education is vital to produce expert scientists
  • We must support science financially

Science, in the form of data and statistics, is also crucial for analysing progress in meeting the SDGs by forming indicators. Good and measureable indicators are important to hold governments to account. Furthermore science should be used to ensure evidence-based policymaking, standardising methods and providing knowledge on technological gaps.

The PolicyLab discussion was expertly summed up by the chair Anne Mills:

We need to challenge the government and hold them to account

It is unclear whether the government intends to release any plans on implementing the SDGs in the UK. The speakers noted the need to be able to hold the government to account to ensure that progress is made. Within the UK government the lead responsibility lies with the Department for International Development, even though some aspects of the SDGs have clear domestic implications.

We need to recognise the synergies across goals and countries

Meeting one goal might have a negative implication on another, therefore we need to acknowledge the relationships between the goals. Virginia Murray pointed out that health, livelihoods and wellbeing are important to the success of all SDGs.

Additionally, individual countries will find it hard to realise all the targets, as they are so ambitious and wide-ranging. So working cooperatively with others, particularly in Europe, could be beneficial.

We need to move beyond science

Science underpins all the goals, however an interdisciplinary approach will create greater success. Future Earth could be a huge part in this as it brings both physical and social sciences together and hopefully will provide some solutions. There are also enormous business opportunities to be had and we should capitalise on this.

Timely to this discussion was the release of the Nurse Review on the governance of future science and research in the UK. One of the review’s recommendations was the creation of Research UK, a new umbrella body (see Eleanor Beal’s blog post) – Chancellor George Osborne announced in his spending review that this would be implemented.

Investment in science is vital to delivering the SDGs and should remain at the heart of policymakers’ decisions.

The Royal Society will continue to work on promoting science in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.