01 November 2017

Robert Ashcroft, Policy and Communities Officer at the Institution of Environmental Sciences comments on the role of science in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

A few weeks ago, the United Nations marked the second anniversary of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In an almost unprecedented display of agreement and cooperation, 193 nations signed up to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015. This ambitious agenda sets out to tackle the worlds’ great challenges – including hunger, poverty, disease, inequality and environmental degradation – articulated through seventeen goals, and 169 accompanying targets. Together they represent an “integrated and indivisible” agenda for global change.


The process of negotiating the SDGs was long and complex; it was important to capture the full complexity of the sustainable development challenge, without generating an unmanageably large number of Goals. One debate concerned the place of science in the agenda: should the importance of research and innovation be recognised with its own goal? Ultimately a science goal was not developed, but perhaps to have done so would have been a failure to appreciate how fundamental science is to meeting the integrated challenges of sustainable development. Instead, the need for scientific research, and the application of scientific principles, is threaded throughout the Goals and their targets.

In the most recent edition of the environmental SCIENTIST, the Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES) explored the role of science and scientists, in partnership with policy, business and civil society, in delivering the SDGs. Highlighting the importance of science to the agenda as a whole, the edition’s guest editor, Farooq Ullah of UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) noted:

“Science can be the great equaliser in the debate, in that it can provide a (reasonably) objective basis for discussion as well as common language through which different perspectives can be brought to bear when looking for innovative solutions.”

This publication features contributions from scientists working in a range of sectors, and all around the world, and highlights some of the exciting work already being done to achieve the Goals. For instance: volunteers using satellite imagery and an open mapping platform to put isolated vulnerable communities on the map; the steps being taken by physicists to improve science education for all in sub-Saharan Africa; and how the innovation of the PVC industry is making businesses more economically and environmentally sustainable. The key themes which emerge from these case studies are the need for interdisciplinary approaches to tackling sustainability challenges, and the importance of partnerships.


In 2015, Nature ran a special edition on interdisciplinarity, in which the editors noted that “The best interdisciplinary science comes from the realisation that there are pressing questions or problems that cannot be adequately addressed by people from just one discipline.” The scale, urgency and complexity of the messy, real world challenges encompassed by the SDGs clearly require this type of approach. As the case studies in this journal show, environmental and sustainability scientists are embracing this integration.

Interdisciplinarity is now being recognised as fundamental to the future of research more broadly, although there are clearly improvements to be made to improve institutional support for this work across the sciences. We must be cautious, however, that a focus on interdisciplinary research does not confine us to a broader scientific silo. Innovative partnerships at the science-policy-society interfaces will be crucial.

Partnerships for the Goals

SDG 17 concerns ‘Partnerships for the Goals’, recognising that the goals are complex and interconnected, and that collaboration between diverse groups of stakeholders will be required to deliver them. Scientists should take note. Not only do we need to work together better, there needs to be increased dialogue between science, society and policy in designing research and innovation programmes. Businesses, policy makers and civil society need to be engaged as co-creators in the scientific process: we need collaboration, not just consultation.

What next?

Clearly the SDGs represent an extremely ambitious vision, and science has a key role to play in delivering on these targets. However, scientists must match their ambition to the scale of the challenge and embrace innovative interdisciplinary partnerships and collaborations.

The IES seeks to facilitate these partnerships where possible, working with both research and applied scientists, and is particularly interested in what makes them successful. In the spirit of Goal 17, we’re very keen to hear from others who see links between their own work and the SDGs, and hope this publication serves to spark discussion and debate.

This issue of the environmental SCIENTIST, ‘Science without borders: Making the SDGs successful’, was supported by the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD).

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