Pursue better coordination and strategic prioritization
The global landscape of actors working on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is continuously growing. While there is a great value in diversity, increasing fragmentation and complexity undermines the effectiveness of different efforts and threatens the attainment of the SDGs. A more coordinated and strategic approach to science and science funding is required to ensure that all efforts are connected and collectively contribute to addressing specific global challenges. An overview is needed of existing data, knowledge, capacities, skills, critical gaps, research priorities and key actors involved in SDG-related research and implementation. On possible approach is to develop a globally curated online collaborative platform where scientists, research institutions and science funders as well as non-academic stakeholders working on SDGs can tag their competences, interests, insights, projects and scientific work. The platform would help identify partners working on similar topics, facilitate synergies, minimize fragmentation and duplication and match existing knowledge with unsolved problems.
The United Nations Global Sustainable Development Report (UN GSDR, 2019) also calls for a globally coordinated knowledge platform that enables collection, aggregation, synthesis and public sharing of the rapidly growing but fragmented body of knowledge on sustainable development from scientific and non-scientific sources, including practical and indigenous knowledge.
Make science governance more democratic, open, transparent and accountable
Science policy-makers, funding agencies and researchers need to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a shared compass to increase the relevance and benefits of science and technology for the global community (UN GSDR, 2019). However, as the SDGs are diverse and often conflicting, the prioritization and pursuit of sustainability goals is fundamentally a political (not technical) matter. Social choices between alternative directions for science and development require participation and accountability.
Leading agencies in the governance of science should actively resist current technocratic tendencies and energetically assert the necessity for democratic oversight of the directions taken by research. The governance of science for sustainability should be explicitly problem-focused, giving balanced attention to a diversity of alternative possible responses. It needs to better acknowledge uncertainties and make space for divergent perspectives and contextual conditions.
There is a corresponding need for transparent, accountable and participatory methods to prioritize research funding, both across different areas of science and within specific fields. Science governance institutions and practices should become more democratic, open, transparent and accountable. Science funders need to scientifically assess how their grant-making practices are affecting the prioritization and directionality of science. Something akin to this is being undertaken under the Research on Research Institute supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Align science funding more closely with societal and environmental needs
Since its adoption, the 2030 Agenda has mobilized the global scientific community to produce relevant knowledge. However, only 10% of global research output relates to the SDGs (Wastl et al., 2020) and sustainability science still remains a limited field in the broader scientific landscape (UN GSDR, 2019). Furthermore, while the SDGs are starting to influence science funders’ priorities, most research funding still prioritizes national scientific efforts that generate economic benefits over international collaboration to achieve societal and environmental benefits.
Given the scale and urgency of the global sustainability challenges, sustainability science should be scaled up significantly (UN GSDR, 2019). To this end, a stronger alignment of research funding priorities with the societal and environmental needs outlined in the SDGs is key. National and international science funding systems need to map their own activities more closely to sustainability measures, for example by explicitly tying research funding programmes and research evaluation criteria to the SDGs.
Strengthen the directionality of science and support large-scale mission-oriented research
Dedicated research funding streams for specific global challenges, with a common agenda and sharing of capacity, should be created with support from both the Global North and Global South. Funding should be directed to a set of large, focused projects that bring together international inter- and transdisciplinary research consortia and centres to address specific challenges in different contexts. These projects should not only focus on identifying technological solutions, but should aim to stimulate social transformation. Open data sharing, regular exchange of findings and re-adjustment of research priorities based on intermediate findings should be key elements of these projects. Under these large umbrella projects, more focused smaller research projects could also be supported. The European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator fund created to enable simultaneous research on vaccines for COVID-19 are examples of how it can be done.
Enhance collaboration between science funders
To accelerate the impact of science will require enhanced collaboration between national science funders, foundations, the private sector and donors. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that such collaboration is critical and possible. Science funders, however, need to overcome divergent institutional interests, better coordinate their efforts in working towards common goals and move to more synergistic approaches. To achieve this, more transparency from science funders will be required – in data sharing, funding calls, research assessments and policies, etc. Collaborative international funding schemes with equal funding procedures for all partners would facilitate global research on SDGs better than multiple national funding arrangements. Developing tailored collaborative funding mechanisms with more flexible governance arrangements that build on partners’ strengths and take into account operational differences will be key.