Sustainable science demands major investment to create new model

The world has been urged to create a $1 billion per year ‘mission science’ model if it is to successfully meet the demands for sustainable development.

From the climate emergency and global health to the energy transition and water security, a new report argues the global science and science funding efforts must be fundamentally redesigned and scaled up to meet complex needs of humanity and the planet.

In a new report launched at the UN’s High-Level Political Forum, the Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability has  warned that prevailing science design, funding and practice fail to address complex global issues at the speed and scale required.

To rectify the issue, the commission recommends setting up an ambitious $1 billion per year ‘mission science’ network of Regional Sustainability Hubs around the world. These Hubs would tackle context-specific and complex issues – from climate change and malnutrition to water security and clean energy – through a systematic engagement process, from problem definition to implementation, with key stakeholders in regions wherever they are needed, particularly in the Global South.

It added the collective investment of this size is not even one percent of the global annual R&D budget, yet it would significantly accelerate the progress towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda the commissions added.

“Sustainability is no longer an aspiration; it has become an imperative,” said Ambassador Csaba Kőrösi, president of the UN General Assembly. “To seek integrated and sustainable solutions, policy and political decisions at the United Nations must be supported by science-based evidence.”

The report Flipping the Science Model: A Roadmap to Science Missions for Sustainability, calls for a ‘mission science’ approach, meant to “overcome the fragmented, compartmentalised scientific knowledge that often fails to connect with and to address society’s most immediate needs”. It seeks to work in a transdisciplinary, collaborative way that is demand-driven and outcome-oriented.

Convened by the International Science Council (ISC), the commission includes the former heads of UN agencies and government ministries as well as heads of national science academies and foundations.

“Just as the global community has used big science approaches to build infrastructure like CERN and the Square Kilometre Array, a similar mindset should be applied, particularly in the Global South, to address sustainable development challenges,” said Commission co-chair Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO. “Unless funders accept the need to transform their funding instruments to promote transdisciplinary stakeholder-engaged research, science will continue to be under-exploited in addressing the challenges of the 2030 Agenda.”

“Actionable scientific knowledge can be generated only through frank dialogues between scientists and funders based on trust,” added Peter Gluckman, president, ISC and Salvatore Aricò, CEO, ISC. “The same applies to the interaction of scientists with policymakers on the one hand and with local and indigenous communities on the other, as both sides are exposed to the need to find solutions to complex sustainability challenges at multiple scales.”

As a proof of concept, the Commission is calling for financial support for a series of pilots over an 18-month period to demonstrate the delivery of mission-led research through these Hubs and refine their approach further, with the ultimate goal of around 20 Hubs operating thereafter.

Under the plans the Hubs would provide a framework to do science for the SGDs differently. They would allow to develop context-specific solutions to sustainability challenges, at the local and global scales – ensuring that science is fit-for-purpose, inclusive and results-driven to address the complex real-world situations it seeks to transform. In Nepal, for example, increased damming of rivers that drain from the Himalayas to India is intended to provide for the growing energy needs of multiple regions across national boundaries as well as a source of economic growth. Likewise, building roads and railways to connect with neighbouring countries in the north and the south could provide not just economic benefits at national scales but also access to facilities for remote communities.