Science On Sustainability: Science, Technology And Innovation Is Not Focused On Meeting The United Nations SDGs

After the CO27 Climate Change Conference and before the start of the COP15 Biodiversity Conference it is important to think how we are globally pursuing sustainable development in policy and in practice. On the 19th of October, an international study was published that did not get the attention it deserved. Changing directions: Steering science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals a study led by the University of Sussex found that research and innovation around the world is not focused on meeting the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

According to the study, research and innovation are largely unrelated to the SDGs, especially in rich countries. Most published research (60%-80%) and patented inventive activities (95%-98%) are poorly aligned with the SDGs. Only 30-40% of high-income and upper middle-income countries is related to the SDGs. In low-income countries, 60-80% of the research is related to the SDGs, but these countries account for only 0.2% of globally produced research.

The study emphasizes that countries’ research priorities are often not aligned with their main SDG challenges: India which is counted in the report as a lower middle-income country, and it is not prioritizing research on hunger or gender equality. High-income countries, such as United States are not prioritizing research on the major environmental challenges associated with unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

The study led by the University of Sussex pointed out that the fact that largest single area for public STI funding around the world is military and security related: “those areas of research that offer the greatest potential in terms of private profit, market control, national advantage or military domination tend to benefit from the largest funding streams and the most enthusiastic political and commercial support.”

The study points out also that there are fewer efforts to address underlying issues of deprivation, inequalities, and conflict than to develop technological responses to more immediate challenges, such as access to energy. The study concludes that there is a glaring mismatch between STI and the SDGs, and the report warns that if this mismatch is not addressed it will undermine progress on the SDGs.

UNDP defines according to the conclusions of the report that “science, technology and innovation research is not focused on the world’s most pressing problems including taking climate action, addressing complex underlying social issues, tackling hunger and promoting good health and wellbeing.” Science journal Nature considers that the report must be seen as a wake-up call, as the world is failing in its progress towards the SDGs and urges high-income countries to do the science on sustainability now.

In 2015, countries of the world committed to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals which is a framework set up to address and drive change across all areas of social justice and environmental issues by 2030. SDGs consists of 17 main goals and 169 targets for every state and progress towards these targets is tracked by 232 indicators. Science, technology, and innovations are considered as central and even crucial action areas for achieving the SDGs. United Nations Inter-Agency Task Team on STI for the SDGs and United Nation’s Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) describe that “achieving the SDGs by 2030 demands that new strategies and solutions to tackle the complex problems that they highlight and to increase the current pace of progress in all of them. For that reason, as part of the Agenda 2030, member states adopted STI as an integral element in their national sustainable development strategies.”

Science, technology, and research require funding and the world to meet the ambitious SDGs financial streams needs to be substantially increased. There is plenty of wealth in this world yet can be argued these resources are not directed towards supporting the achievement of social and environmental targets but aimed at supporting traditional national security targets.

In April, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that world military expenditure passed 2 trillion for the first time. Total global military expenditure increased by 0.7 per cent in 2021.

United States military spending was the highest with roughly 800 billion dollars in 2021 which is 3.5 per cent of its GDP. According to SIPRI, US funding for military research and development (R&D) rose by 24 per cent between 2012 and 2021. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India has with 76.6-billion-dollar the third largest military expenditure and it has increased its military funding with 33 per cent since 2012.

SIPRI describes (Lopes da Silva et al 2022) that military expenditure in Africa increased by 1.2 per cent in 2021 to an estimated 39.7 billion dollars although Africa accounted for the smallest share for military expenditures with 1.9 per cent of the global share. African countries allocated an average of 6.1 per cent of their government budgets to the military which is more than the average (5.9 per cent) of world’s countries.

For low-income countries, military expenditures are a heavy burden for their financial resources and can reduce government spending on health, education, and research. According to Dr. Sam Perlo-Freeman from SIPRI, in general, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Central and South Asia spent more on the military than on public healthcare in 2013.

The study shows a serious contradiction between what is defined in policy and in the end practically done to achieve the SDGs. Although I agree with the critique that overt enthusiasm for technological optimism which claims that humankind can simply count on that future technological innovations will eventually save us from climate catastrophe and that systematic changes are also fundamentally needed in tandem with cutting down consumption and production levels in the Global North, yet as the world is facing unprecedented challenges with climate change, all possible means to counter it should be examined and utilized. Therefore, STI and human ingenuity should be increasingly targeted towards achieving socially and environmentally sustainable development. This is the decade when action needs to be taken. As the Secretary General of the UN Antonio Guterres has stated in the Climate Summit in Egypt last month, the world is with current estimates “on a highway to climate hell.”

The recent increasing militarization in the world is shifting the attention away from the fact that the deterioration of the environment is a major source of human insecurity according to a more comprehensive security paradigm of human security. UN has described that climate change is a threat multiplier because of its potential to exacerbate many of the current challenges and threats already being faced in some countries. Andrew Harper, United Nations Refugee Agency’s Special Advisor on Climate Action describes that climate change contributes to conflict indirectly. Fragile regions are already facing food insecurity, urbanization and migration, and competition over resources. According to Harper, “when combined with other planetary crises such as land degradation and over exploitation of the environment, climate change can make an already fraught situation untenable” and lead to conflicts. Because of its extensive impacts on societies, climate change and its relation to conflicts, inequality and instability require extensive research.

It is easy to support the recommendations of the study as the world is lagging in achieving the SDGs. Michael Green writes that according to Social Progress Index (SPI) in 2019, the SDGs will be reached by 2073 on current trends. To address the misalignments between STI and SDGs, the study has several recommendations, for example that funding for SDG related research and innovation should be increased and in particularly in the low-income countries which face the most significant SDG challenges.

It is quite clear that with even a small part of world’s military expenditure, 10 per cent, major progress could be achieved on some of the key SDGs as Perlo-Freeman from SIPRI has defined. To address more complicated research areas, the underlying issues of deprivation, inequalities, and conflict the study recommends increasing funding for research and innovation that focus on the complex social, historical, and political determinants of sustainability, related to inequalities and conflicts. Instead of increasing their military expenditures nations should direct their finances in supporting their STI potential and human capital towards addressing their major SDG related social, economic, and environmental problems.