18 February 2014

Africa: Scientists 'Need to Step Up' to Development Goal Talks

Scientists need greater access to discussions on a new sustainable development agenda if the final post-2015 framework is to accurately reflect their priorities, say experts close to the process.

Shifting decision-makers' behaviour from merely acknowledging relevant scientific evidence to acting upon it will require a much deeper involvement of scientists through both official and unofficial channels, they say.

Johan Rockström, executive director of research institution the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, says there was a "healthy" level of scientific advice during meetings of the UN's Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The group met in New York, United States, this month (3-7 February), for the last of its eight fact-finding sessions.

But he is unsure how much of this will translate into policy.

The evidence clearly shows the importance of having environmental sustainability as the entry point through which all other global development targets must be derived, he says.

Yet, Rockström adds, current negotiations are erring towards a 'Millennium Development Goal-plus' model that fails to prioritise this essential reality.

Scientists must look beyond the OWG to foster dialogue with governments' special envoys to the UN Secretariat and gain access to round-table discussions and meetings on subjects including climate change and biodiversity, he adds.

"If you want to translate that [advice given to the OWG] into goals, indicators and targets, you need to interact at a much, much deeper level, and come into the heart of the working process," Rockström tells SciDev.Net.

This will not only require policy-makers to become more open to scientists attending events, but also an increased commitment from scientists to be involved in the process, he adds.

Anne-Sophie Stevance, a science officer at the International Council for Science (ICSU), an NGO that promotes scientific activity and its application to benefit humanity, says that the OWG system has shown a "real interest in science". But, even within this system, efforts could be made to boost scientists' input, she adds.

Currently, all interaction must pass through the UN's Scientific and Technological Community Major Group - one of nine groups representing sections of society that are involved in sustainable development negotiations and one where the ICSU is an organising partner.

A broader relationship with UN staff, such as the technical department that prepares the OWG briefs, would bolster scientific influence, she says.

"In the longer run, we would like to have a substantive working relationship [with the UN] to address gaps they have on their side and also promote ownership of the SDGs among our own communities," she tells SciDev.Net.

Gisbert Glaser, a senior advisor to the ICSU, is similarly pleased with the input the scientific community has had so far, crediting the OWG's co-chairs as being particularly influential in realising this.

A consensus is emerging among members of the OWG over the inclusion in the post-2015 sustainable development goals of a few stand-alone goals - such as on food security, water access, energy and health. But with a list of around 25 candidate themes to cut down and group together, much work remains, he says.

Despite the progress, Glaser agrees with Stevance that the OWG needs to do more to integrate scientific advice into the SDG discussions and should start reaching out to scientists in between meetings if it is short of expertise.

"We would like to see a more direct relationship with the UN Secretariat, which prepares the work of the OWG," he tells SciDev.Net.

Link to Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals

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