Leaving No One Behind (a Paywall)

The scientific and technological community has a crucial role to play in providing the evidence, expertise and data to inform, measure and monitor the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

With this statement, I opened my presentation at an official session of the 2018 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) on “Multi-stakeholder perspectives on the Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies”, 13 July 2018.

In this presentation, speaking for the UN Major Group on Science & Technology, I remarked that there is a vast body of scientific knowledge already available. Knowledge that is important to be synthesized and to be utilized – and to be advanced. I also stressed that, when turning scientific inquiry more towards solutions, there is an important role for the social sciences, the humanities, and arts.

Additionally, I highlighted that there is another, new, exciting scientific challenge. That is: assessing and explaining the steering effects of the SDGs (see the recently launched GLOBALGOALS project, and the Governance of and for the SDGs project completed in 2016 with the book Governance through Goals).

Another key point I made in my short presentation (although 7 minutes is generous for a stakeholder representative in the context of a UN intergovernmental meeting):

This is a problem for the scientific community as it results in weak or missing contextual knowledge in the implementation of the SDGs. But, on the long-term maybe even more problematic, is that the global discourse on sustainable development will remain skewed. (With interns at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, I have written a longer article with plenty of empiric data on this which we will publish soon.)

The uneven distribution of scientific capacity, moreover, is also a challenge to one of the core principles of the Agenda 2030 and the therein embedded SDGs, as adopted by all countries in the 2015 Resolution 70/1 of the United Nations General AssemblyTo leave no one behind.

All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan. (…) We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind. (A/RES/70/1 preamble)

There are many ways to strengthen scientific knowledge production and capacity everywhere, and in particular there, where it is currently “left behind”. A short presentation at an intergovernmental meeting is not the appropriate form and forum to elaborate on this. Basic lobbying-tradecraft required to bring this down to one point. A point relevant to the UN Member States in the audience, and preferably a point where there is already some policy traction. And there is one: Open Science.

This ongoing transition in how research is performed and how knowledge is shared, is already a priority for the European Commission. On the related issue of open access to scientific publications, many of the EU Member States and other countries around the world are having their own skirmishes with the antiquated business model of scientific publishing.

The main argument for open access is that the findings of publicly funded research should not be hidden from that public by a paywall. But in the quest to implement Agenda 2030, open access is also linked to the principle of leaving no one behind.

Quality, accessible, timely and reliable disaggregated data will be needed to help with the measurement of progress and to ensure that no one is left behind. (A/RES/70/1 §48) They will (…) have a particular focus on the poorest, most vulnerable and those furthest behind. (A/RES/70/1 §74e)

In the creation and publication of scientific knowledge for the benefit of the SDGs, more emphasis on responsible research and innovation (RRI), of which Open Science is an integral component, is needed. (Here a shout-out to the RRING project).

Reforming the business model for scientific publishing is a no-regret measure for UN Member States as it is overdue anyway.

Free access to scientific knowledge by all stakeholders everywhere, will not directly resolve the unequal distribution of scientific capacity, nor will it directly benefit those furthest behind. But, it is a “low hanging fruit” and it will be a significant step towards leaving no one behind on the crucial role of scientific knowledge in the implementation of the SDGs.

Quoting the final sentence of my presentation at the HLPF 2018:

Transformation to sustainable development, understood as intentional – not as evolution or revolution through chaos – needs to bring together knowledge and societal agreement. It requires access to, and the application, advancement, and fostering of cutting‐edge scientific knowledge.

Ruben Zondervan

Ruben joined Stakeholder Forum in 2017 as Executive Director. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Earth System Governance Project. In this dual role he is well-positioned to manage Stakeholder Forum and to streamline the Partnership for Governance of Sustainable Development which will strengthen the evidence base of the multi-stakeholder processes facilitated by Stakeholder Forum, and the impact of the novel policy solutions that are developed by researchers from the Earth System Governance Project.