Mr. Thomas Gass Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs

European Research Council Conference
From the Millennium to the Sustainable Development Goals: the contribution of science to diplomacy

Distinguished Participants
Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for this opportunity. It is an honour and pleasure to address this distinguished conference.

The purpose of my visit here is to add to the discussion on the contribution of science to diplomacy. And, within that, to also share with you my enthusiasm for what the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 SDGs can do for humanity.

Distinguished participants,

These 17 Sustainable Development Goals resulted from the most inclusive policy dialogue the United Nations has ever organized.

As noted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, there can be no going back. We need all hands on deck to implement these Goals, which are a shared vision of humanity for transforming our society and protecting our planet.

The interlinked Goals, are supported by a total of 169 targets for which indicators exist and monitoring systems are being put in place. They are an overarching framework – a kind of common roof to other intergovernmental processes and conventions of which you are no doubt familiar, including of course the Paris Agreement and international efforts to counter climate change,

The Sustainable Development Goals outline a complex effort to end poverty and hunger, and ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality, in a healthy environment.

That is why the Goals speak to many common concerns of countries, at all levels of development …whether youth unemployment and widening social and economic inequalities … increasing natural disasters and threats from climate change that include degradation of terrestrial ecosystems and loss of biodiversity … or weaknesses in social coherence, management of the state, and violence.

These are challenges that can hold everyone back … and are not contained within national boundaries. And as the challenges are fully inclusive, so the solutions must be as well.

So, allow me to share a bit of history in how science and academia – critical partners in ensuring inclusive solutions – participated in the diplomatic exercise called the 2030 Agenda process. Then I will highlight a few concrete examples where science and academia pushed the envelope and helped to effect change, and conclude by outlining the role that science and academia will play in implementation of the SDGs.

From the very start of the process in developing the SDGs, Member States were very clear that science and academia should participate. In fact their full involvement and expertise was called for as far back as the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio. This is the spirit in which they engaged actively in the negotiations for the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda.

The early stock-taking phase in particular, in which members of academia from numerous universities and research centres participated, has often been cited as a major factor in the successful negotiations that followed. Among other things, it provided a shared knowledge-base for Member States on a variety of complex and interlinked sustainable development issues.

In March of 2013, we organized an expert group meeting on Science and Sustainable Development Goals, together with the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC). The 2-day meeting brought together more than 25 scientists from a variety of disciplines.

A second meeting was held in December 2013, this time in partnership with the Earth Institute and International Council for Science (ICSU) at Columbia University.

Once the draft goals and targets started to take shape, the process and the decision-making by the UN Member States benefited from a different type of engagement by academia. Several scientists and research groups provided their independent, critical assessments of the proposed focus areas, goals and targets, and science-based alternatives for their formulation.

The voice of the academia was also heard in the negotiating rooms, when scientists were given the floor as part of the Scientific and Technological (STC) Major Group. They actively commented on the draft goals and targets and their operational implications. Among many examples, in March 2015 the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council released a report which provided a review of the proposed 169 targets and their interrelationships.

There are numerous examples where science and academia pushed the envelope and helped to effect change. Here are a few:

Published in 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has sometimes been criticized for its lack of direct political take-up. However, the framework it popularized to define ecosystem services – and their relationship to human well-being and activities – has quickly become the mainstream reference. It translated very quickly into policy language, and a myriad of operational activities all over the world and at all scales, from the very local, such as watersheds, to the regional, such as rainforests, to the global, such as oceans.

Another example is on health and nutrition: The scientific community has been very engaged in evaluations of the policy interventions commonly used to address food security and nutrition issues. Over the years, the journal The Lancet has published review articles co-authored by hundreds of scientists, which looked systematically at all the evaluations of specific types of interventions, in different countries. This has recently been complemented by a baseline analysis of the health-related SDGs in all countries, also based on a collaboration from hundreds of scientists.

A third example is acid rain. Science and science cooperation mechanisms played a critical role in spurring policy action to address the problem of acid rain created by industrial pollution, both in Europe and in North America. Scientific collaboration in supra-national settings, sustained over time, paved the way for political action. This area is generally considered a success for multilateral action.


Science and academia will also play an important role in implementation of the SDGs. And here I will include three specific areas – data mechanisms, emerging issues, and novel solutions.

Right at the starting gate we need to know what works and what doesn’t. So enhancing the science-policy interface for the SDGs should be a priority. This goes well beyond looking at trends in terms of global indicators. For example, we need to know:

  • What types of policy interventions will allow us to reach those left behind?
  • And in what cases will it be possible to reach those furthest behind first?

Science can inform these questions by revealing – to what extent have strategies that have been used in the past SDG areas – been successful in leaving no one behind?

On data, for example, Science obviously has a critical role to provide data that supports decision-making and monitoring at all levels. The follow-up and review of the SDGs, which has received a lot of attention in UN circles recently, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Data is necessary to all stakeholders: central and local governments, business, civil society organizations and citizens. In addition to their role in producing data, science and academia also have a critical role to play in:

  • assessing the reliability of the data that exist;
  • suggesting new techniques for collecting, producing and analysing data;
  • assessing the appropriateness of existing data processes in supporting informed policy-making or management decisions; and
  • supporting the elaboration of new data standards.

Another important function of the science-policy interface is the identification of new and emerging issues. In the next 14 years, the international community will need to put in place a reliable system for identifying emerging issues that need addressing at the global level. These can come from the social, environmental, economic, technological and political sides.

The breadth of the SDGs requires the consideration of issues from different sources and processes, and from various perspectives and disciplines. Science plays a critical role in this process, both in the initial “scanning” for issues across a range of sources, and in the filtering, prioritization and interpretation of emerging issues for the benefit of the political process.

To take an example, the Global Sustainable Development Report 2016 proposed a methodology for identifying relevant emerging issues for the consideration of the HLPF. In conducting an exploratory scanning of emerging issues, it considered various sources and channels, including:

  • consultations of experts and expert networks;
  • snapshots of emerging issues and research priorities identified by national academies of sciences;
  • selected issues from leading academic journals; and
  • crowdsourced science briefs.

The involvement of experts from multiple disciplines brings critical added value to this process, including for prioritizing emerging issues and providing multi-dimensional analyses of the issues and their inter-connectedness.

Issues expressed as threats, technological opportunities or management and policy responses often relate to single, broader underlying problems. For example, the broad trend of climate change can be associated with emerging threats, opportunities, and policy responses.

The regular scanning and multidisciplinary analyses of emerging issues from different levels and perspectives will be important to keep the SDGs on course. This should be part of a well-functioning “warning system” within the science-policy interface for Agenda 2030.

Lastly, Scientists from all disciplines have a critical role to play in identifying novel solutions to both old and new dilemmas regarding sustainable development.

Technological change is of course obvious as a potential game changer. Both incremental and radical technological changes and solutions can help accelerate progress in many SDG areas. But the role of science and academia in identifying game changers is much broader than that.

The focus will also need to be on behavioural change, for example to address sustainable consumption and production issues, and on finding new synergies between goals which are perceived as trade-offs in the mainstream paradigm.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe you have exceptional power to help us achieve the SDGs by 2030. The contribution of science has to be at the heart of any realistic and widespread progress for humanity. We ask you to use your influence to commit your organizations to doing business responsibly, and adhering to universal principles of sustainability – underpinned by human rights.

Everyone’s contributions inspire hope. By working together, we can say to the children of this world, that the 2030 Agenda is not just a new deal among nations, but a solemn promise to its people and to future generations.

Let us make this shared vision of humanity our common cause.

Thank you.

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