Science, technology and innovation aren’t addressing the world’s most pressing problems, a major new study finds

new York – Global research serves the needs of the Global North and is driven by the values ​​and interests of a small number of companies, governments and funding bodies, a major new international study published today finds. As such, the authors find, science, technology and innovation research is not focused on the world’s most pressing issues, including taking climate action, tackling complex underlying social problems, tackling hunger and promoting good health and well-being.

That’s all according to a major new report and film published today (Thursday 20 October) by an international collaboration led by the University of Sussex, along with United Nations Development Programme; University College London; United Nations University; National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, Argentina; Center for Research on Innovation and Science Policy, India; Leiden University, The Netherlands; Graduate School of Technology Management, South Africa; and Nesta, UK.

Changing directions: Channeling science, technology and innovation for sustainable development goals found that research and innovation around the world is not focused on achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a framework designed to address and drive change across all areas of social justice and environmental issues.

Critically, the report finds that research in high- and middle-income countries contributes disproportionately to the lack of engagement with the SDGs. Most published research (60%-80%) and innovation activity (95%-98%) is not related to the SDGs.

Illustrating the imbalance, the report found that 80 percent of SDG-related inventions in high-income countries are concentrated in just six of the 73 countries—with the United States alone developing 47 percent of such inventions.

In both the Global North and the Global South – and in areas such as health, food or energy – research and innovation funds tend to be spent on technologies that benefit private interests rather than those that more directly address social and environmental problems. Research shows that most high-income countries do not prioritize research into the major environmental challenges associated with unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

The study also finds that although the majority of stakeholders consider social, political and grassroots innovation critical to addressing the SDGs, support for these types and forms of innovation and related research on complex underlying social issues of deprivation, inequality and conflict , lags far behind.

Andy Stirling, Professor of Science and Technology Policy, from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School, says:

“If we do not see an urgent overhaul of the way science and technology research is undertaken, we will not do justice to the biggest issues we face – including preventing disease, tackling climate change and distributing food fairly.” If we fail to meet this challenge, research and innovation will become further development as just another way to accumulate power and wealth for those who already possess it. What we need is more equality, diversity and democracy in research and innovation.

“The world is facing unprecedented challenges and governments, policymakers and those who commission research must urgently reframe the work they commission in light of our greatest challenges as outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.” It should be okay to say no to the direction of innovation if it won’t help us effectively tackle our biggest problems.”

Professor Joanna Chattaway, Head of Unit in the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) at UCL says:

“The report aims to address the imbalance we are currently seeing. We are trying to direct the work in the field of science, technology and innovation in the direction of the SDGs so that we can meet the global and economic challenges. It doesn’t happen automatically.”

The authors of the project Steering Research and Innovation for Global Goals (STRINGS) call for science, technology and innovation to become more democratic and more narrowly focused on achieving sustainability. This includes increasing evidence and tools, such as those provided in the new STRINGS report, to enable more active debate and exploration of alternative and inclusive science, technology and innovation strategies.

With the support of the United Nations Development Program to launch this project, Haoliang Xu, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Director of the UNDP Bureau of Policy and Program Support, explains:

“The world is in turmoil. Deep economic, political and environmental upheavals threaten to derail the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, as this year’s Human Development Report says: “In uncertainty lies opportunity” – and this speaks directly to science, technology and innovation (STI).

We hope that the findings of this important report will contribute to the debate on realigning the STI funding and governance architecture to step by step in our efforts to achieve the SDGs and leave no one behind.”

In short, the report calls for:

Other recommendations from the report also include:

  • Funding more research that explicitly explores the tensions and synergies between different aspects of sustainability, including providing greater support for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.
  • Involvement of LIC researchers and stakeholders in funder advisory and steering committees to ensure that their views are taken into account in planning, defining and evaluating research programmes.
  • Ensuring that decisions about which science, technology and innovation pathways to prioritize include the stakeholders affected by those decisions.
  • Establishing a global observatory for a platform to conduct regular surveys of global research and development, its diversity, inclusion, scale, locations, goals and impacts; bringing together constellations of funders; and creating global funding pools.

The STRINGS project was funded by UKRI – UK Research and Innovation.

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