Go back

‘The only goal of science’


Global funders’ body is ready to partner UN efforts on sustainable development, says Katja Becker

The survival of humankind and our planet is at stake. The urgency to act has never been greater. That is why the UN Sustainable Development Goals are of the utmost importance; to achieve them, policymakers, civil society and researchers need to team up, right now.

This year will see the mid-term review of progress towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which includes the 17 SDGs. As of yet, many fundamental scientific questions concerning the goals have not yet been answered or even addressed.

This needs to change. As the title character says in the German writer Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 play Life of Galileo: “I hold that the only goal of science is to ease the hardships of human existence.”

There is no doubting that science does contribute significantly to tackling global challenges. Fundamental research was instrumental in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. In the current ‘polycrisis’, science empowers us with profound expertise, innovative tools and creative solutions to fight climate change and the loss of biological diversity, to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, promote justice, and uncover the logic of global peace.

Moreover, if we want to reach the SDGs on schedule, or anywhere near it, science has to play a more active role than at present. To achieve this one could be more ambitious still, and reflect on the idea of establishing a new and additional goal of putting global research cooperation centre stage of global development. Such a move would reflect not only research’s practical contribution to solving societal problems, but that searching for the truth is a fundamental part of human nature.

A single agenda

In the absence of adding research cooperation to the SDGs, everything else needs to be done that contributes to integrating research and its findings into the sustainable development agenda. To that end, I would propose the Global Research Council as a partner to the United Nations’ efforts to harness science, technology and innovation in the service of sustainable development, sometimes called STI for SDG.

The GRC represents a worldwide association of the heads of research funding organisations. Most are already promoting and funding research related to the SDGs. This year, the council is dedicating its annual meeting, taking place in The Hague this week, to the role and potential contribution of public science funders to tackling climate change. This means supporting technological progress, on areas such as energy generation, but also crucial work on sustainability and conserving biodiversity.

To this end, the GRC is promoting an SDG pilot programme to fund research into issues related to sustainable development. Building on this, next year the council’s annual meeting will focus on sustainable research.

This is about more than funding the right projects, though. The SDGs overlap with the work of the GRC, not only in terms of subject matter but also in the idea of a global partnership set out in SDG17. The GRC promotes bilateral and multilateral cooperation among its participants and with other international stakeholders.

Finally, the best research thrives where there is academic freedom. Unrestricted choice of research topics, combined with free multilateral cooperation, fosters fundamental research at the highest level. This has been strongly emphasised by the UN General Assembly’s decision to proclaim 2022 the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development.

The Global Research Council is prepared to contribute as a partner to the STI for SDG process and support concrete implementation; for example, through the Partnership in Action on STI for SDGs Roadmaps proposed by the UN last year.

Such a partnership has the potential to be powerful and efficient, because the contribution of research to the SDGs is based on the latest scientific findings and can count on a strong and dedicated global community of researchers.  

Katja Becker is chair of the governing board of the Global Research Council and president of the German Research Foundation (DFG). This article is based on her 4 May speech to the United Nations Science, Technology and Innovation Forum.

A version of this article appeared in Research Europe