How much science is in the Sustainable Development Goals zero-draft?

Collecting data on oceans in Alaska
Oceans have a prominent role throughout the zero-draft.(Photo: NOAA's National Ocean Service via Flickr).
Jun 2015

What's left out of the SDG zero-draft - rather than what made it in - is crucial for the science community.

Forget about the big picture. Ignore the overall context. Just start a frenzied word search. Like many others, that’s what I did last week when the UN released the Zero draft of the outcome document for the UN Summit to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Not surprisingly, my words of interest were “governance” and “science”, including variations like “research” and more specific “social science” and “scientific community”.

This narrow word-count focus results in 30 mentions: science (6 times), academia (3), research (3) scientific and or academic community (2), energy research (2), scientific capacity (2), scientific knowledge (2), others (10). Despite zero-counts on social science, humanities, or interdisciplinary research, the overall number of mentions of science is pleasing. The first sentence of paragraph 7 in the section on Means of Implementation and the Global Partnership, is as good as it gets:

“Successful implementation [of the Post-2015 Development Agenda] will also depend on the resources, knowledge, and ingenuity of business, civil society, the scientific community, academia, research institutions, philanthropists and foundations, parliaments, local authorities, volunteers, and other stakeholders.”

Three mentions in one sentence: scientific community, academia, and research institutions. But wait, although these words are not perfectly synonymous is this not a bit redundant? Maybe. In any case it is a typical example of text resulting from long intergovernmental negotiations with strong involvement of other stakeholders. Every interest groups wants its agenda included in the text. This means many sentences are long, though vague, broad, though not always relevant, and seemingly comprehensive, but - wary of sins of omissions – ending in the catch all “and others”. Another common ending for such sentences is “as appropriate”, code for: only when member states are comfortable with it.

Thus, having established that science is at least mentioned frequently – which is relevant only to the few people lobbying for science in sustainable development – it is necessary to look more broadly into the context and framing of science in the text. Here I will use the example of paragraph 33 of the introduction:

“We recognize the central role that science, technology, and innovation play in enabling the international community to respond to sustainable development challenges. We recognize the power of communication technologies, technical cooperation and capacity-building for sustainable development.”

This paragraph, like in most others that mention science (e.g. targets 9.5; 12.a; 17.6; and 17.8) ties science together with technology and innovation. To me, as a lobbyist for social and interdisciplinary sciences, this indicates a rather utilitarian understanding of science in which the usefulness of its findings for the agenda at hand overshadows the value of fundamental knowledge production and critical reflection on the Post 2015 Development Agenda and its implementation. The value of social science and humanities knowledge is not recognized anywhere in the zero-draft, yet technical fixes alone will not deliver success.

Also, like in the above example of paragraph 33, science is often mentioned in combination with capacity building to “support developing countries to strengthen their scientific and technological capacity (…)” (Target 12.a.) or part of calls to “enhance (…) cooperation on and access to science, technology, and innovation and enhance knowledge sharing (…)” (Target 17.6). Similar ideas are articulated in targets 9.5 and 17.8. Much of that has to be read as UN code for technology transfer from the developed to the developing countries.

While this is without doubt laudable and absolutely necessary, the zero-draft fails to recognize that the Post-2015 Development Agenda also needs to foster the production of scientific knowledge in general and in particular research in, for, and by the developed countries, and to facilitate their scientific perspectives to the discourses on global sustainable development.

Bucking the trend of vague platitudes, Goal 14 on Oceans has a different language on science. Target 14.5 explicitly even calls for conservation of coastal marine areas “(…) based on the best available scientific information.” The prominent role of oceans throughout the zero-draft is anyway remarkable.

More important than how often science is mentioned, or in what context, is of course the question of how much the formulated goals are based on solid scientific knowledge.

As the goals and targets have in essence remained unchanged from the outcome of the Open Working Group, it suffices to refer here to the Review of Targets for the Sustainable Development Goals undertaken by ISSC and ICSU which concluded that out of 169 targets, 49 (29%) are considered well developed, 91 targets (54%) could be strengthened by being more specific, and 29 (17%) require significant work.

A related concern is that there are a few instances in the document which raise the question whether the negotiators or some of the more effective lobby groups were sufficiently informed about existing research findings. Two examples from areas of research in which I have been involved indicate independent analysis is having little impact:

First, there remains a rather uncritical belief in the value of partnerships for sustainable development. For example, partnerships “that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology, and financial resources (…)” are prominently feature as one of three systemic issues in goal 17 on means of implementation (targets 17.16-17) which promotes “effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships building on the experience (…) of partnerships.” Even although the word is mentioned significantly fewer times than in the recent Synthesis Report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda by the UN Secretary General, research on partnerships shows that their contribution to closing the implementation gap has been negligible and their overall effect has been inconclusive at best.

Second, target 6.5 to “by 2030, implement integrated water resource management at all levels (…)”. Recent research highlights that content of this water governance approach is not clear, that it is difficult to implement, and there are few successful examples in the developing world, not least because its underlying values are often not shared.

Likely, the most crucial role for the scientific community is not related to what is in the zero-draft, but rather to what is not.

For example, the indicators to underpin the goals and targets are yet to be developed. Future Earth, through its various projects, has the knowledge and expertise to contribute to indicator development in many issue areas, as well as contribute to a better understanding of the function and politics of indicators. Similarly, the scientific community could help to ensure that the various numbers still lacking in the targets, currently expressed with x, are informed by science.

And last but not least, the entire architecture and process of review and monitoring of the implementation of the Post-2015 Development Agenda is still on the table. The zero-draft includes some interesting ideas on this already. There is plenty scientific knowledge on design of such processes, and the scientific community is key to contribute high-quality and timely data and data-analysis to review and monitoring.  Review and monitoring is not just about technical and bureaucratic arrangements. It is intrinsically linked to broader questions of the legitimacy, accountability, and effectiveness of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Now that is the big picture!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Earth System Governance Project, or the Project on Sustainability Transformation beyond 2015 (POST-2015) and their joint initiative on Navigating Sustainable Development in the 21st Century: Governance ’of’ and ’for’ the Post-2015 Development Agenda.



Joe Brewer8 Jun 2015
Hello Ruben, Thank you for all that you are doing to promote interdisciplinary social science for world governance. I would love to talk with you about two projects I am working on that can support your efforts and may be appropriate for collaborating in the future. The first is an in-depth linguistic analysis I just completed that looks at the implicit assumptions and value judgments throughout the SDG framework. I would be happy to send you an advance copy of my report. The second, which is very much aligned with your mission here at FutureEarth, is an effort I am undertaking in collaboration with the International Centre for Earth Simulation and the Evolution Institute to integrate the research fields of cognitive science, complexity research, and earth systems science. A brief introduction (a teaser, really) can be found here: One of my roles in this body of work is to incubate transdisciplinary projects that tackle root social problems in the world -- currently focusing on reframing the global discourse on poverty and inequality and evolving the dominant economic paradigm to incorporate a greater breadth of social and biological science input. Please let me know if you would like to arrange a time to discuss these matters further. Very best, Joe Brewer Culture Designer Evolution Institute