Crowdsourcing could help to identify emerging development issues and ensure the global development agenda is more representative of views from the global South, says a prototype of a planned one-stop-shop report compiling science advice for development.
The UN's Prototype Global Sustainable Development Report lays the foundations for a definitive document, scheduled for 2016, that is intended to give a unified voice to scientists looking to shape development after the Millennium Development Goals end next year.
It follows on from a commitment within the Rio+20 summit outcome document - The Future We Want - to produce a way of improving the science-policy interface by bringing disparate scientific assessments together in one place.
"In 2012 alone, more than 40,000 authors from 2,200 cities around the world published some 150,000 articles on sustainable development," the report says.
Richard Roehrl, senior economic affairs officer for the UN Division for Sustainable Development and lead author of the report, says that the multitude of scientific assessments often serve to dilute their political impact.
"If a global effort is to be made at the highest level of government to improve sustainable development decision-making, putting all these views in one place will make a big difference," he tells SciDev.Net.
The report explored how best to achieve this by compiling inputs from 291 expert contributors from UN agencies, NGOs, academic institutions and governments, collected through a dedicated task force and meetings. More than 4,000 contributions were made using an online crowdsourcing platform.
The prototype report highlights the need to include the voices of developing world scientists from a wide range of disciplines, as well as local and traditional knowledge.
But it says that "many countries continue to face great capacity constraints in assessing and advancing sustainable development knowledge" as well as giving "relatively low importance to date" to sustainable development.
"Major efforts are required to support science capacity in developing countries and to strengthen the institutional mechanisms to support evidence-based policymaking everywhere," it says.
The report also calls for better technology cooperation to accelerate the transfer and diffusion of environmentally sound technologies, and for the mapping of developing countries' actual technology needs.
"Technology transfer is happening too slowly to tackle the big sustainable development challenges," it says. "And technological capabilities in developing countries need to be substantially strengthened if they are to partake actively of the major technological transformations that lie ahead."
The report discusses various methods that could be used to garner broader scientific input.
While a model that relies on peer-reviewed literature and the views of an elite group of nominated scientists could be used, most contributors agreed the net must be cast wider, it says. This may include not only identifying "scientific consensus but equally to focus on describing differences in view, including from minority groups of scientists".
Crowdsourcing is a useful tool for gathering opinions from a greater variety of scientists, it says, particularly regarding emerging issues. But protocols will need to be developed to evaluate the quality of such inputs, it says.
Roehrl says the report's successful use of crowdsourcing itself demonstrates the method's potential.
"Once we reached out to communities that were not traditionally engaged in the UN process, there was enormous interest," he adds.
The comprehensive scientific perspective that the final report aims to provide could also play a vital role in monitoring any targets and indicators laid out by the forthcoming set of Sustainable Development Goals, the report says.
But successfully tracking the development agenda's progress will also require significant capacity building of national statistics offices and the use of technology, such as remote sensing and big data analysis, it says.
Andrew Scott, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute think-tank in the United Kingdom, doubts the report will bring much concrete change - apart from helping to monitor sustainable development at a global level.
Focusing efforts at a national level to help governments adapt their national sustainable development plans rather than adding to the pile of international reports that "never make much difference" would give scientists' efforts much greater impact, he says.
The report was launched last week (1 July) at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York, United States.