Science, Technology & Innovation: How well are we serving the SDGs?

In an effort to track the global alignment between science, technology and innovation (STI) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a consortium of seven universities led by UNU-MERIT researcher Tommaso Ciarli released the Steering Research and Innovation for Global Goals (STRINGS) report – a project funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in collaboration with the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

In this interview, Tommaso Ciarli shares the main findings of this research with Leopoldo Pérez Obregón, Communication Officer at UNU-MERIT. You can listen to the full conversation, or find a transcript below:


  • STRINGS Project Overview

    Leopoldo Pérez Obregón: Tommaso, we are here today to discuss the findings of the STRINGS project, in particular the report that was recently published under the title ‘Changing Directions: Steering Science, Technology and Innovation towards the Sustainable Development Goals’. Can you tell us more about this project?

    Tommaso Ciarli: The project was funded under a peculiar collaboration between the United Nations Development Program, UNDP, and UKRI, which is the UK research and innovation national funding agency. Its main focus was understanding how science, technology and innovation may contribute (or not) to the Sustainable Development Goals. But I think it is important to say something which was very relevant. Throughout the project, and this was part of the goal, the UNDP was always involved. Because it was a relatively large project with partners around the globe, we had these bimonthly meetings with the project team. UNDP was participating in all of these meetings. They were not doing research directly, but they contributed to the research in a substantial way by giving feedback through several presentations of interim results. So it was a relatively strong engagement of the stakeholders, not just in the design of the call –which details, what they expect from the research– but then there is the research team. So the way in which that research develops may not be what the stakeholders or even the research fund, the UKRI, think should be developed.

    Leopoldo Perez Obregon: That is quite interesting, how the agenda starts to evolve and shape as you start to ask questions. What were the first and main questions that you wanted to answer at the beginning of the process?

    Tommaso Ciarli: So we came from a number of years in which we were looking from different perspectives at the way in which the investment priorities in research are related to the demand for that research. And we had a number of results in health, in agriculture, which were showing that the distribution of the different topics in research is not very well aligned with the distribution of the needs across society. This sounds sort of obvious, in the sense that there are some challenges which are more problematic than other challenges. But when you look at it, the distribution is always skewed towards the challenges which are particularly relevant for one part of society and not another part of society – they are particularly relevant for high-income countries or within high-income countries, they are particularly relevant for wealthy people.

    This was something that was already raised in the past, for example by the work of Richard Nelson with his very interesting book about The Moon and the Ghetto, which was asking the question of why we put more money into putting a man on the moon than in addressing the several issues that we have in our metropolitan and suburban areas. There are many responses to that, but one of the things is that, in the end, it’s easier to do research on a very specific technical problem, such as putting a man on the moon, than [addressing] issues which are more societal. These are more complex to address because they are societal, they are political and there are very different views about how to address issues in a ghetto.

    Leopoldo Perez Obregon: Yeah, I mean, it’s fun to put a man on the moon and nobody will oppose it because it doesn’t touch any special interests.

    Tommaso Ciarli: But it is also easier. I mean, there is lots of math behind it. But it’s easier to solve that maths than it is to solve the political differences with respect to the composition of a ghetto. What do you do? Do you invest in education? You have migration, you have political tensions, social tensions.. It’s easier to understand some of the technical issues than it is to understand some of the social relations and political issues.

    Just imagine that in physics, for example, or in medicine, you can do an experiment in a lab. You can understand what happens to something which is treated and something which is not treated. As we know, we have a very hard time doing that in social sciences. I mean, you can do RCTs (randomised controlled trials), but you’re always worried that it is almost impossible to isolate individuals.

    Leopoldo Perez Obregon: And there are also many ethical concerns involved when doing experiments.

    Tommaso Ciarli: Exactly.

  • Main findings of the report

    Leopoldo Perez Obregon: What would you say are the main issues related to how we do science that you identified in this report?

    Tommaso Ciarli: There are several issues. I’m going to give a quick summary of the main results of the report.

    Definitely, there is a problem of inequality and orientation. The research which is done related to the Sustainable Development Goals is mainly done in high-income countries. And if you take low-income countries, which still cover one-third of the population approximately, they produce – according to our data– 0.2% of the scientific research which is published in the world. But the main problem is that in high middle-income countries, only 20-40% of research is related to the SDGs and between 2% and 5% of the patented innovations are related to the SDGs. In low-income countries, this rate is much higher: between 60% and 80% of research is related to the SDGs and around 90% of the invented patents. So it is doubled.

    Now one could say: ”Fine, but low-income countries often collaborate with high-income countries.” This is unfortunately not the case, because only 0.3% of the research is done in collaboration between high-income countries and low-income countries. But one could still say: ”Yes, but 20%–40% of the research globally, which is related to the Sustainable Development Goals, is actually not that bad. It’s a substantial amount of research, in quantitative terms.” The problem is that 60% of it is actually related to one single SDG, which is goal number three (health and well-being). And when you dig further and you look at which particular diseases this research is addressing, these are mainly diseases which are relevant to high-income countries. So how much this contributes to where the Sustainable Development Goals are more challenging –which is in low-income countries– is very little.

    The second main problem is that the research is done very much in silos. If we think about the SDGs and if we think about how these different goals interact and relate to each other, one would think that in order to address a specific SDG challenge, you also need to think about how this is going to interact with the other SDG challenges. To give an example, if you work on developing and installing solar panels, are you thinking about what are the social implications of that? Are you thinking about how that may change the physiognomy of an urban area, how that might change the relationship between the people who live in that area? It’s never done together. There is a group that works on the technology –the scientists– and then there’s a group that works on conflict, that works on economies, that works on sociology, that works on structural change. And these are separate.

    The third problem is the problem of regional misalignments. There is no specialisation of a specific country in research related to the SDGs, which represent the main challenges of that country or region. We do find a regional alignment in the case of hunger, which is SDG number two. So, countries that have a higher problem in terms of hunger, specialise more in research related to hunger. But not, for example, in terms of education and not, for example, in terms of environmental sustainability. So countries that pollute more, do not specialise in research which is related to environmental sustainability.

    And the fourth and last problem is, is that there is a tendency of closing most of the potential science and technology pathways towards addressing SDGs and focusing on one or two dominant pathways. And we see that very much in our case studies, that despite different views about how specific challenges related to the SDGs may be addressed, in the end it is done in one or two ways using one specific technology or one specific intervention. So where to invest in research and innovation would be different according to whom you ask.

    Not only there are different ways of addressing a challenge, but we also know from innovation studies that there is a tendency of locking in very specific directions of research. And it is very difficult to move out of those lock-ins. Once you are in a specific pathway, in a specific direction of research and innovation, and once you have incumbent actors which hold stakes on that particular pathway, it is very difficult to move out of it. 


  • SDG alignment: how to measure it?

    Leopoldo Perez Obregon: How do you measure what is aligned or not aligned with the SDGs? Because it might be a difficult thing to grasp, right? How do you design that?

    Tommaso Ciarli: It is extremely difficult. So we did that in three different ways, one which is purely quantitative and very global. We took all scientific publications which are produced in a specific repository, which is the Web of Science –we are talking about millions of publications– and we took millions of patents from most patent authorities in the world. And we tried to map how this production of research, patents and inventions relate to the SDGs.

    Then we developed a global survey, a Delphi survey. We distributed it to a large number of different stakeholders, among them researchers and inventors but also beyond. We also surveyed policy experts, NGOs and international organisations to understand what they thought might be the best science, technology and innovations that would address the SDGs by 2030.

    So in the research and inventions [data] that we analysed, we mapped what are the priorities –meaning what has been published and patented. In the survey, we asked people what they think should now be the focus of the research and the direction of science and innovation. And then we went one level deeper and we developed three different case studies, understanding how one very specific challenge related to the SDGs is addressed in a local context.

    We have one case study on Chagas, a neglected disease which is particularly endemic in Argentina and Brazil. Our case study was in Argentina and it was to understand how the research system prioritised specific pathways for addressing the Chagas problem. We did one case study in Lake Victoria, which was about conflict over fishing. A conflict between different fishermen, particularly between large corporations and small traditional fishermen and how, again, technology has been used to try to address that conflict. And a third case study was in India. There, the challenge was related to SDG 2, hunger. Trying to understand how best to develop rice seeds which are resistant to climate shocks. And again, there are a number of options, including development of new rice seed through breeding, through GMOs (genetically modified organisms), but also using local varieties, indigenous varieties and mixing them by having farmers conserving these varieties and then experimenting with them in different fields. There are many different ways in which you can address the same problem, basically. So we went down in these case studies and tried to understand how this is done.


  • Policy recommendations

    Leopoldo Perez Obregon: Tommaso, we identified all of this. We know that science is not aligned with the SDGs. What do we do now? How do we turn this around?

    Tommaso Ciarli: We identified four main areas and the first data is about research itself.

    1) We need to improve the alignment between the priorities of research and the SDGs. This can be done by increasing the funding of research in the areas which have the highest challenges, which are currently doing the lowest amount of research.

    2) Funding more research in low-income countries, because in these countries, research is better aligned with the SDGs.

    3) Involve more researchers from low-income countries.

    4) Make these relationships more equitable, so that the challenges which are relevant for low-income countries are reflected in the research and not only imagined by somebody who lives in a high-income country and thinks, ”what are the main challenges?”. There is a tendency in research currently that low-income countries are seen as laboratories. So they are good sources of data, for example, in RCTs. There is usually a difference between the researcher from the high-income country and the researchers from low-income countries in terms of their contribution to the research.

    5) Fifth, and very importantly, we have a whole system, a research system that when it gets to the researcher, has a strong incentive to do research which can be published in top journals. That means doing research, which is novel – research which does not repeat anything that has been done before. So if you have to address very specific local challenges, it is very unlikely that the top journals would be interested in such local issues if you cannot generalise. But even if they are interested, it is very unlikely that they will be interested in replications of these studies in different areas. Because that would be unoriginal.

    So the evaluation of the whole research is very important because the evaluation of the research, determines the career of scientists, determines the ranking of universities, and how universities are attractive to students. So the whole evaluation system plays a big role in that. And obviously, having evaluations that have a big premium for mainly publishing in top journals can be highly problematic.