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ISC convenes successful 2nd Global Forum of Funders

The Global Forum of Funders is ready to “unleash science” for sustainability, but political champions willing to work with global science and funding communities are needed to realize its ambitions.

The second Global Forum of Funders has been convened by the ISC and its partners with commitments from participants to engage with the open platform on a regular basis. The aim of the Forum, which brings together public, private, philanthropic, and development aid sectors, is to raise ambition that will scale up efforts by funding communities supporting science for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Participants from more than 70 countries contributed to the virtual discussions held over three days.

Peter Gluckman, ISC President-elect opened the Forum, urging the funding community to support science that focuses on finding the needed solutions to the challenges of the global commons. He asked funders to dig deep and reflect on their failures to date to effectively address the global commons issues and be open to change. Failures, which included a lack of strategic analysis to determine priorities, resource limitations, or a promotion of competition over collaboration, could be addressed through greater investment in a range of social sciences, taking a genuine approach to transdisciplinary research and promoting systems-based approaches.

Funders largely support disciplinary research, often duplicative and predictable in result, rather than of intellectual innovation and risk, and most not really focusing on finding the needed solutions to the challenges of the global commons; the problems that will define our future.

Peter Gluckman, ISC President-elect

Watch the full address:

Former President of Ireland, Chair of the Elders and ISC Patron, Mary Robinson gave a challenge to the virtual table of funders, suggesting they must provide the leadership to addressing inequalities through increased collaboration using mission-oriented research to achieve the SDGs  as a matter of urgency. She also cautioned the use of “build back better”, a term used by the United Nations as part of the COVID recovery.

The UN has used the same language as the Biden administration – the language of build back better. I actually question that I don’t want to build back to that grave inequality that was exposed by COVID, but I would like the scientific community to build forward with equality, with justice, with sustainability

Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland, Chair of the Elders and Patron of the ISC

Susan C. Moser, ISC Strategic Advisor on Transformations to Sustainability and Albert van Jaarsveld, IIASA Director General and Chief Executive Officer presented the preliminary findings to the soon-to-be-released report A Framework to Unleash Mission-Oriented Science. They highlighted the need to focus on five key Global Science Missions – food, energy and climate, health and wellbeing, water, and urban areas – if we are to avoid systems collapse within the century.

For science to support the urgent societal transformations towards a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future, Moser and van Jaarsveld called for:

A nimble, targeted, mission-oriented set of scientific initiatives and associated support structures that harness the best of what science can do, but do so in a completely different (albeit largely proven) way, connecting seamlessly with other parts of society to implement necessary policies, practices and behavioural changes.

To achieve this, the report recommends to bring together the best of global science to work together with policy makers, the private sector and civil society actors to deliver jointly on the five missions. Co-design, co-production, co-delivery & co-implementation would be crucial to their success.

Practical case studies on mission-oriented science were shared by speakers, including Drew Leyburne, Vice Chair of the Mission Innovation Steering Committee, who showed how 20 heads of state committed to double their spending on clean energy innovation during the 2015 Paris COP21, which resulted in an increase of almost 5 billion dollars in clean energy innovation spending and an acceleration of innovation through a ‘co-creation’ and ‘inclusivity’ approach.

Among the successful case studies were also reality checks of the SDG realization being off- track. One such misalignment was pointed out by Joanna Chataway, Head of Department at UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (University College London) who showed that within SDG related research, more than 90% is done in high and upper-middle income countries, while low-income countries are much smaller research participants, even though the SDGs are key concerns for them.

Vidushi Neergheen, Associate Professor, Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research, University of Mauritius, asked whether funds are actually available to find solutions for local problems, or whether funding is driven by priorities from the global North.  This is in line, she argued, with the “trickle down science” concept, where there is an ongoing reliance on Northern countries for solutions to local problems.

“There is a dear need to problem solving that takes local context into account. There is also the problem poor infrastructure, lack of up-to-date equipment and bureaucracy which does not create that enabling environment”.

The Forum heard from various speakers and respondents, but one theme became clear during the event – a political will was needed to implement the urgent changes required to meet the SDGs. For this, the international science community would need to identify and bring on board relevant political champions who would be willing to work with the global science and science funding communities to co-design and deliver a campaign and concrete plan of action that is commensurate with the challenge we face.

Heide Hackmann, ISC CEO, provided a challenge to the Forum, saying that it must not become a “talk shop”, but rather “it must serve as a community of common purpose, one that is (co-) committed to working with the international scientific community and other stakeholder communities to call for, help shape, and support game-changing, science-based action for global sustainability transformations”.

The framework for global action to support transformative, mission-oriented research and scholarship on global sustainability’ that was presented to the Forum during the first day of this meeting will provide a useful and appropriately bold starting point, a tractable blueprint for the kind of game-changing action we have in mind.

Heide Hackmann, CEO, International Science Council

Next steps

The ISC will launch the report A Framework to Unleash Mission-Oriented Science in June 2021. For further information, contact Katsia Paulavets, or see the Global Forum of Funders websites:


Global Forum of Funders partners

  • Belmont Forum (represented by the US National Science Foundation)
  • Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)
  • Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
  • Science Granting Councils Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa (represented by the National Research Foundation of South Africa)
  • UK Research and Innovation
  • Future Earth,
  • International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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