– Ine Steenmans, Tommaso Ciarli and Joanna Chataway
31 March 2020
Science, technology and innovation (STI) are often invoked as essential to addressing some of the most serious of threats to our world. A common narrative is optimistic about the contribution that new science and technologies can make; scientific advances and innovative applications are what give us access to cleaner energy supply, new medications, new vaccines to control a virus pandemic, and more accessible public infrastructures. Consideration of negative externalities or the need to actively steer science and technology in certain directions mostly do not feature.
This is certainly a time when there is global awareness of the multiple, shared challenges that require large scale action within the near term. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide us with a single shared reference point to what 17 of the most pressing issues faced across the world are. Given STI’s history of changing the fundamental structures of society, the potential for positive impact and the need to avoid further environmental and societal harm, it is unsurprising to find that there is particular interest in asking: how can we steer STI to better align with the SDGs?
The STRINGS project starts from the premise that in order to better align STI with SDGs, we need first to better understand the nature of instances when they do not align well. This is an important aspect to investigate because our initial assessment was that, more often than not, statements about the relationship of support of STI for SDGs are very general and mask our understanding of what specific investment in research is addressing which pressing issue(s), SDG, or target. Some recent studies suggest that within given domains, such as health or agriculture, specific investments may not always be well aligned to the most pressing issues. For example, is research responding to health needs? To some extent, but several conditions with a high burden on life receive less funding than conditions with a significantly lower burden. Or, do countries with higher malnutrition rates and caloric intake from rice focus their research within rice on topics related to human nutrition more than other topics, such as for example cultivation practices? Ciarli and Ràfols find that this is not the case, and that countries that invest relatively more research on human nutrition are those that export the rice, not those that consume it.
At other times, statements of STI-SDG alignment are related to very specific examples and cases that seem difficult to replicate in different contexts. For example, in India, developing stress-tolerant rice varieties via community based women’s groups to improve quality of seed available to famers and expand the role of women in rice production. Or, the promise of opening scientific advance in the case of the Chagas disease in Argentina.
Enthusiasm has a tendency to run high, but if we reflect on the relationship between scientific advance and technology on the one hand and societal progress and environmental sustainability on the other, we don’t learn from the past. If we don’t take a moment now to challenge our ideas about STI-SDG alignment, we risk falling into the trap that innovation and technological silver (STI) bullets can alone solve complex and multidimensional problems.
Which then leaves a practical question: how can we assess the alignment between STI and SDG?
This question is at the heart of our STRINGS project and as part of the project we convened some of world’s experts and key stakeholders in STI and the SDGs last November to challenge STRINGS’ aims and research design. Their contributions, summarised here, have been crucial in our thinking about how to refine the research plan for the work we are doing.