Demystifying the SDGs: The World’s Science Academies Launch a Guide for Leveraging Expertise

SDG 17If ever there was an example of how the world’s nations can work together for the good of the planet, it is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by all UN Member States in 2015. Whether poor, rich or middle-income, countries have promised to promote peace and human well-being whilst protecting the planet. The SDGs account for economic, environmental and social aspects of development, and include everyone, wherever they live and work.

However, two years into the 15-year process, many people have still never heard of the SDGs, let alone applied them to the way they live and work. Others think they only apply to the developing world. Even within academia, according to a 2017 survey of national, merit-based academies of science, medicine and engineering, the UN processes related to the SDGs are perceived to be complex and confusing, providing further disincentive to get involved.

The survey was conducted under a three-year project by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), the global network of merit-based science, engineering and medical academies, working together to help address shared global challenges using the best available scientific evidence. Indeed, realizing the SDGs will require the best knowledge and innovation from all sectors. Scholars of all disciplines have an essential role to play in the Goals’ implementation. Policymaking usually happens at the national level and tends to be more effective when it is informed by rigorous, peer-reviewed evidence. Representing some of the best scientific minds in their countries, the academies are an important source of expertise.

According to the nearly 90 academies that responded to the survey:

  • Many indicated that they are already working on issues pertinent to the SDGs but hadn’t necessarily connected with potential users of the knowledge, policy makers and politicians; and
  • Some expressed concern about their own limited national visibility and capacity constraints, as well as disconnects between different actors working to support the SDGs and between national and international commitments made by their governments.

Despite these concerns and disconnects, most respondents expressed a willingness to do more. They identified a wide variety of ways they might do this: from providing (and facilitating access to) experts and peer-reviewed knowledge, to convening and promoting dialogue between different actors, to monitoring and evaluating progress, including the development of indicators. The challenge is now to help the academies find specific, realistic ways to play their part, whether they are small or large, new or old, resource-rich or resource-poor.

Aiming to address these issues, a new booklet from the same IAP project – Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals: a Guide for Merit-Based Academies– is a resource for science academies and other interested members of the global science community. It provides an overview of UN processes and structures supporting the SDGs, and the entry points for scientists to engage nationally, regionally and globally.

The guide presents examples of ways academies are already aligning their work to the SDGs, such as: setting up expert committees and working groups on the SDGs; incentivizing universities to focus on SDG-themed programmes and curricula (on which the Sustainable Development Solutions Network recently published a valuable guide); and developing national science, technology and innovation (STI) plans for the SDGs.

A pilot database of peer-reviewed reports accompanying the guide shows where academies can bring knowledge to support the SDGs and where there is capacity to inform policy-making. In this way, it serves as a crude proxy for the current state of knowledge for each Goal. For example, the academies are clearly comfortable working on agendas related to SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) and SDG 13 (climate action). However, SDGs 1 (no poverty), 8 (economic growth and decent work), 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) are less well served.

In compiling this information, we found that academies tend to identify the themes they work on according to the interests of their members, rather than (inter)national policy priorities. This approach can result in poor alignment between supply and demand.

Academies and academic societies provide a wealth of research expertise and insight, which is presently underutilised. If deployed effectively, they can play an important part in supporting the SDGs, as independent sources of peer-reviewed knowledge, as champions of evidence-informed policymaking, and as mentors to younger generations of scientists to help empower them to play their part.

The IAP project on the SDGs is beginning to effect modest change: some academies have reported that the project has been “a wake-up call” and “put the SDGs on our radar.” The Young Academies produced a statement on their potential role in supporting the SDGs, in part stimulated by this project. And the co-chairs’ summary of the 2017 Multi-stakeholder Forum on STI for the SDGs (STI Forum), which served as an input to the UN High-level Political Forum on sustainable development (HLPF) directly references the key messages conveyed by IAP at the Forum, i.e. “Scientists must better understand policy and policymaking processes. A diversity of scientists – both young and old – must be incentivised and mobilised to support evidence-based policymaking” (paragraph 61), and “Academies of science….should be encouraged to take an active role in national STI processes and in identifying needs and gaps” (paragraph 69).

We look forward to building on these identified needs and supporting a crucial group of actors to help achieve the SDGs.

For further information, please contact

References: International Institute for Sustainable Development. 2018. Retrieved from

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