For science to enable societies to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030

In 2019, the Global Forum of Funders asked the International Science Council (ISC) to convene the insights and ideas of the global scientific community on the critical priorities for science that will support and enable societies to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. To this end, the ISC launched a global call for inputs in October 2020 to shape a priority action agenda for science. The ISC also undertook the review of international agenda-setting reports and transformative frameworks and commissioned the review of the relevant academic literature (see Sources of Input and List of reports and articles reviewed).

The collected inputs informed directly the development of the report Unleashing Science: Delivering Missions for Sustainability. This report highlights the need to focus our collective wisdom and research efforts on the delivery of five Sustainability Science Missions – pertaining to food systems, energy and climate, health and wellbeing, water and urban areas – if we are to stabilize the Earth system within a safe-operating space within 10–20 years. Unleashing Science identifies possible areas for scientific inquiry for each mission.

The inputs collected through the global call and the literature reviews provided in addition valuable insights on research gaps and priorities which, if pursued, could support the impact that the Sustainability Science Missions seek to accomplish. The present document introduces these research gaps and possible priorities. They have been distilled into five topical areas.

In addition to the topical research areas, the input from the global call and the literature review provided valuable insights on how science systems, including science funding, need to evolve to support societal transformations required to achieve the SDGs. These key findings are provided in the second section of this report, Reforming Science Systems.

Given the wide scope of the SDGs, any literature review will be selective. The intention of this particular synthesis is to identify, on the basis of a careful analysis of the literature, research areas and themes that can make particularly significant scientific contributions towards implementation of the SDGs in the next decade. We believe that they can help guide future scientific funding action.

A Synthesis of Research Gaps

International Science Council, 2021.

✍ Sources of input

  • An ISC-led global survey undertaken in 2020 to convene the insights and ideas of the ISC’s global network of institutions and experts on the critical priorities for science that will support and enable societies to accomplish the goals by 2030. In total, 239 valid responses were submitted, covering 61 countries from different continents.
  • The review of over twenty international agenda-setting reports and transformative frameworks on issues related to sustainable development. This includes Transformation is Feasible: A Report to the Club of Rome, 2018; The World In 2050; IIASA, 2018; UN Global Sustainability Report, 2019; and UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery (see List of reports and articles reviewed).
  • The review of scientific literature. In total, 95 scientific articles have been identified and reviewed (see List of reports and articles reviewed) to identify examples of research priorities and needs in fields of sustainable development. Keywords such as research agendas, SDGs, sustainable development, knowledge gaps, research trends and research priorities were used to identify relevant articles in Scopus. A total of 810 documents (articles, reviews, books, chapters and editorial notes) were thus identified. The list was further reduced by prioritizing articles published since 2015, which marks the official launch of the SDGs, as well as focusing on reviews and syntheses of current knowledge. After screening of titles and abstracts, 95 papers were identified through Scopus and suggested by the Scientific Advisory Group.

👏 Acknowledgements

This document was developed by the ISC under the valuable guidance provided by the members of the Scientific Advisory Group – Albert van Jaarsveld, Director General, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis; Susanne C. Moser, ISC Strategic Advisor on Transformations to Sustainability; Line Gordon, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden; Bob Scholes (sadly passed away on 28 April, 2021), University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; Roberto A. Sánchez-Rodríguez, College of the Northern Border, Mexico; Anthony Capon, Monash Sustainable Development Institute Australia; Peter Messerli, Wyss Academy for Nature, Switzerland, and Melody Brown Burkins, The John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, USA – who helped to analyse and cluster the multiple inputs, and review the document.

Katsia Paulavets, Senior Science Officer, ISC, coordinated the development of the document.

We would like to thank all contributors to the 2020 ISC global call on shaping a priority action agenda for science for sustainability! Without these inputs the development of this report would not have been possible.

We would also like to thank Diego Andres, Chavarro Bohorquez and Ernesto Andradesastoque for undertaking the review of scientific literature. The report further benefited from expert inputs from Stefan Kaufman.

The ISC team that supported the development of the report includes: David Kaplan, Megha Sud, Lizzie Sayer, Zhenya Tsoy, and Caroline Sharples.  

♻ Reforming Science Systems

Building on the inputs received from the global call and the literature review, this section outlines five broad areas with specific reform actions required for science systems, including science funding, to become more effective in supporting societal transformations towards sustainability. The identified areas include:


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