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Steering towards sustainability

Image: MintArt, via Shutterstock

Andy Stirling describes a new project aiming to help science and innovation serve global goals

How can research and innovation best further social progress? And how to correct the error of seeing scientific and technological advances as whatever incumbent interests produce?

How to give as much care to the direction of research and innovation as to its pace, benefits or risks? How can societies as a whole do better at steering science and technology to foster greater equality, environmental integrity and human and international development?

These are some of the questions to be addressed by a new international collaboration called Strings, for steering research and innovation for the Global Goals. The project is funded by UK Research and Innovation, led by the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex and the Department of Science, Technology Engineering and Public Policy at University College London, and undertaken with the United Nations Development Programme.

A new approach

Strings will pioneer new approaches to mapping research and innovation in relation to the targets and metrics set out in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. This will build on the pathways approach developed at the University of Sussex, which acknowledges that sustainability is inherently political and can mean different things to different people. 

For instance, contrasting pathways to sustainable energy might include intercontinental infrastructures linking large centralised renewable energy production, or diverse energy service innovations devolved to community and neighbourhood level.  

Although some degree of diversity is inevitable in a complex world, growing pressures towards globalisation tend to standardise, ‘optimise’ and lock-in institutions and infrastructures around those pathways with the most powerful backing—which are not necessarily the most sustainable. 

Crucial here, of course, is that science and technology are not the only means to human progress. What counts as research and innovation must also include social science, the arts and humanities. Research can involve lay and ‘indigenous’ knowledge at least as much as the products of academia, government or business.

Some of the most relevant innovations for the Global Goals are from grassroots civil society and only partly involve technological change. Others are entirely behavioural, institutional or cultural.

Give and take

In all their diversity, research and innovation are vital for sustainability. Science and technology can help to provide clean water, food, shelter, energy, mobility, communications and human security, as well as allowing impacts to be shared more equally.

Yet science and technology are also deeply implicated in some of the gravest global challenges. These include climate disruption, water pollution, biodiversity loss, urban smogs, occupational risks, stratospheric ozone depletion, many environmental health disorders, and the sometimes oddly forgotten but ever-present threat of war.

In all these areas, global patterns of lock-in—such as those around fossil fuels, toxic and radioactive materials, transport systems, neglected diseases, soil-eroding agriculture, and corporate control of seed production—can impede sustainability. Meanwhile, military and national security interests continue to drive the largest single source of funding for science and technology worldwide.

Private profit, organisational reputation, national prestige and military dominance remain major drivers of much science and technology. These are not necessarily always bad—fortuitous alignments, spin-offs and trickle-downs do occur. 

But sustainability cannot be reached as a side-effect of pursuing other goals. Addressing the Sustainable Development Goals means tackling not only difficult technical challenges, but also some tricky political questions.

Take, for example, the ways in which sustainability challenges are typically framed in relation to technology and innovation. Too often, debates about how to address some particular goal become narrower discussions about how to implement the particular, usually technical, ‘solution’ most favoured by influential interests. 

One consequence is that rents on intellectual property, market share, control of supply chains or synergies across products are all emphasised as drivers of innovation. Other kinds of innovation may offer greater benefits, but such options are far more difficult to realise unless they come with similarly attractive incentives.

For example, ecological farming, biological pest control, intercropping or seed-sharing remain neglected, despite often delivering significantly better outcomes than genetically modified crops for farmers and their environments. Likewise, renewable energies of many kinds lose out to nuclear power, despite manifest advantages in many parts of the world.

Such processes of lock-in also affect applied research and academic science. Why, for instance, is so much research investment driven by the supposedly determining power of genes alone, despite repeated recognition for the importance of more systemic processes among proteins, cells, metabolisms and ecologies?

Is this anything to do with it being easier to patent genes than the more complex systems in which they are embedded?

Critical perspective

To raise such questions is not to criticise science in general. Rather, focusing on these possible mechanisms of bias underscores the importance of the values of academia, including independence; respect for evidence; making results widely accessible; and constant scepticism. 

Critical faculties are needed both inside and outside science. By mapping the relationships between Global Goals and the priorities of international science, the Strings project aims to build capabilities for greater rigour and accountability in the steering of research and innovation.

Andy Stirling is professor of science and technology policy at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. The Strings project is holding a public panel discussion at the St Bride Foundation in London on 7 November.