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Mobilising the Transformative Power of the Research System to turn the Sustainable Development Goals into a New Reality

In 2015 under the auspices of the United Nations, 193 countries officially adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This represented a commitment to work towards key targets encompassing the environment, the economy and social sustainability. If adopted in full, it would represent a substantially improved and different vision for our future.   Four years on from making this pledge the UN gathered at the 2019 SDG Summit in New York, the first since 2015, to assess if the Global Goals are, as their new tagline goes – ‘turning promises into reality.’

Vast swaths of people globally are demanding that new reality. The main message from the Extinction Rebellion movement (XR) and the world-wide strikes that have been led by young people, is that policy makers and businesses are not doing enough or moving fast enough to reduce the harm being done to the planet through emissions of CO2 and loss of biodiversity. The message around the climate emergency, coming from this international social movement, is no longer on the edge of political or public life, but galvanising millions of people around the world. Important but complex questions therefore emerge as to how different actors can and should work to help address the SDGs. The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) is part of this discussion, for the SDGs underpin many of the Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP) principles in relation to science, technology and innovation (STI) policy.

A TIP research team (Matias Ramirez; Oscar Romero; Johan Schot; and Felber Arroyave) from three collaborating universities (the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex in the UK; UGlobe from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and University of California Merced in the US) have been working on one aspect of this: How can national research systems best produce research that simultaneously addresses the complexity associated with interaction between the 17 SDGs? The proposition put forward in this study is that research that “builds bridges” between pure science and engineering, social science and environmental research is much more likely to embrace the spirit and objective of the SDGs and indeed be “transformative”.

Through a time series bibliometric study of Mexico’s research outputs (publications), and a novel methodology based on meta-data and Social Network Analysis, the team found great examples of research that appeared to embrace the complexity by working with different types of SDGs. However, it also highlighted a vast amount of work that was limited to narrower technical approaches to address environmental and social issues. As Dr Matias Ramirez, of SPRU comments:

“To be truly transformative, which reaching the SDGs must be for humanity’s future, we have to be able to work between disciplines to embrace complexity through a nexus-type approach towards research design. The SDGs have to be embraced in the spirit they were intended. This means reflection, navigating possible conflicts and trade-offs, and searching for new knowledge by collaborating with different sets of researchers to foster co-creation.”

The paper highlighting this research, on creating a transformative research system, was debuted at the Sustainability Transitions Research Network (STRN) 2019 Conference in Ottawa.

Get the research updates, follow Dr Matias Ramirez , Oscar Romero, and Professor Johan Schot on Twitter

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