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Global science needs a new approach to tackle climate change and complex sustainability question

While the world records its hottest July since records began, the ISC's vision of a new model for science for sustainability is more needed than ever.

As an unrelenting heatwave grips much of the northern hemisphere, after the hottest June and July ever recorded, the ISC is pushing for a new approach to global research to speed up critical work and reinvigorate the push for science solutions. 

Despite ongoing climate catastrophes, progress has been “unacceptably slow” on the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN’s 2030 Agenda, which provide a roadmap toward a sustainable future for humanity, members of the ISC’s Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability are warning. 

Recognizing the urgency, a recently released report from the Commission lays out a new strategy for how work toward those goals can be pushed forward as quickly as possible. 

Built on the expert advice of international scientists on the Commission’s Technical Advisory Group and launched at the UN’s High-Level Political Forum in New York, the report calls for a new approach to global science to address complex sustainability challenges.

In the report, the Commission emphasizes the need to shift the conversation from ‘what’ needs to be done to ‘how.’

“Bring the science to the problem. The problem is not one of science. It’s what people do with the scientific results,” argues Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council and a member of the Global Commission. 

Flipping the Science Model: A Roadmap to Science Missions for Sustainability

International Science Council, 2023. Flipping the science model: a roadmap to science missions for sustainability, Paris, France, International Science Council. DOI: 10.24948/2023.08.

Science for solutions

The report calls for a substantial re-investment in science for the public good – “mission science,” which offers creative solutions to current problems – as well as an ambitious re-structuring of the current funding model for this type of science. 

The current model is “predominantly characterized by intense competition, an absence of trustful relationships with stakeholders, and siloed science funding,” the Commission argues. Current science funding policies can also divide research along national borders, prioritizing national efforts over international collaboration. 

To break down those walls and encourage more effective collaboration, the Commission is proposing a global network of Regional Sustainability Hubs, which would mobilize transdisciplinary research at the local and regional level that can contribute to effective solutions to big problems. 

At each of these Hubs, “science missions” would connect scientists with communities affected by the problems at hand – those who best understand the stakes and the local needs – alongside policy-makers, civil society, funders, the private sector and others. 

The Commission points to the energy transition as an example: are existing science solutions practical enough? And how can policy-makers and private sector players be involved to assess where research is most urgently needed? This is another challenge demanding input from social scientists as well as technical and climate experts, the Commission notes.

“Studying biotechnological solutions without consideration of these and other factors cannot succeed, yet funding mechanisms to undertake this research at any scale largely do not exist,” the Commission writes. “As a result, the science community retreats to the types of siloed research that are currently incentivized.”

Go fast, go together

Energy is just one area where identifying practical solutions and finding the common ground needed to make compromises and turn promises into action requires a more targeted, collaborative approach than what currently exists. 

The proposed model of regional hubs aims to take on vital, practical questions that cross disciplines and borders, including those that may be too large and costly for individual countries to take on – issues like how to improve food security in urban areas in rapidly developing regions, suggests Ismail Serageldin, a former vice president of the World Bank and Honorary Fellow and Inaugural Patron of the ISC, who spoke at the report’s launch in New York. 

A solution might be to lower the price of food while increasing farm productivity — but working out a strategy and how to implement it is a question that requires a variety of perspectives, he says. “The policy is designed around the science; science enables the policy. But we need the social sciences for the institutional mechanisms, the outreach to the communities and so on,” he explains. “It can be done, and it requires science-driven policies.”

The Commission estimates its proposed new approach will need $1 billion in annual funding – which sounds like a big number, but is a fraction of a percentage of the global research budget. It would quickly pay dividends by making efforts more efficient and effective – and by reinvigorating humanity’s efforts to respond to our unprecedented challenges. 

“For the whole SDGs, at a billion dollars for 20 centers – it’s not too much,” argues Serageldin.

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Harnessing scientific evidence and decision-making to accelerate progress on the SDGs

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With the immediate effects of climate change never clearer, the report comes at a crucial time. Our planet cannot keep up with the impact of human activity, says Csaba Kőrösi, President of the UN General Assembly, who spoke at the report’s launch. “The only good news is that we are still in the game, but now the game itself needs to be changed,” says Kőrösi. 

“It is imperative that we bridge the gap between science and decision making if we hope to create just and inclusive outcomes for all of humanity,” continues Kőrösi, whose foreword to the report notes the invaluable contribution of scientists to global sustainability – including on the recent High Seas Treaty, the 2023 UN Water Conference and ongoing discussions on the proposed UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution.

The Commission is now mobilizing support for a soon-to-launch call for proposals, which will provide pilot projects with up to $500,000 each to work on specific local and regional challenges, which would then be scaled up at the end of the pilot phase. 

“There is an urgency to act,” write Commission co-chairs Helen Clark and Irina Bokova. “The ISC has committed its own resources to get to this stage. It now needs the global community to join with it so a science-based approach to the existential risks we all face can be systematically delivered.” 

Projects like CERN prove that there is global willingness to invest in ambitious projects, explains Beatrice Weder di Mauro, President of the Centre for Economic Policy Research and a member of the Global Commission. 

CERN is a vast project, with infrastructure that crosses physical borders – and it benefits from collective funding by multiple countries and the expertise of scientists from more than 80 countries, notes di Mauro, who spoke at the launch in New York. 

“It is a really beautiful example: it is possible, and it has been done before. The world recognizes that we would not understand subatomic particles if we did not have these collaborative efforts to make science progress,” di Mauro says. With the effects of climate change so apparent, it’s hard to disagree that a collaborative approach on the scale of CERN – a sort of Large Hadron Collider for sustainability – isn’t needed in the field of sustainability as well, she argues. 

“Science cannot be an individual enterprise anymore,” concludes Kőrösi. “Nowadays, great things in science are never done by persons or one group of researchers, but by a much larger team of people.”

The challenge humanity faces is enormous, Kőrösi notes: “In this struggle, there will be no second chances.” But science may be “one of our most important weapons,” he argues – and how we use it will play a decisive role in how we meet this existential threat. 

“Transformation is going to happen anyway. How well we are equipped will make the difference in what world awaits us: victims or master of the transformation,” Kőrösi says.

Image by Thomas Donley for the ISC. Image features Beatrice Weder di Mauro, Irina Bokova and Ismail Serageldin at the launch of the Global Commission’s report.

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