Rethinking how science and development interact to address 21st century challenges

A surging population is one of many challenges which science and development practitioners must address together in the future. Credit: iStock

Science has informed generations of development initiatives: modern medicine to fight disease, low emissions technologies, engineering to build infrastructure.

And yet in the 21st century, scientific research is still out of step with development pathways. For instance, despite having known since the 19th century that emissions of carbon dioxide are warming the global climate, fossil fuels continue to drive economic growth around the world.

So as the challenges we face — from population booms to a fragile economy — become increasingly severe and complex, it’s time for science to take a more central role in making development more effective, more sustainable and more fair.

To enable this, the global science platform Future Earth has undertaken a yearlong discussion between scientists and other stakeholders spanning more than 74 countries in order to rethink how research must become more responsive in addressing societies’ emerging needs.  

The Future Earth Strategic Research Agenda 2014 sets out the results of this consultation, outlining the priorities for research over the next few years and the key questions which seek to answer many of the planet’s most pressing challenges. It also has implications for how those working in the development sector can get involved in shaping this new scientific agenda, apply it to everyday practices and feed into how it evolves over time to ensure it stays relevant to changing needs on the ground.

Think in connected systems, not silos

Humans are now a major force of change on many natural systems.

From altering the chemistry of precipitation to causing more soil erosion than all natural processes combined, the effect of human influence cannot be overlooked. Little wonder that a growing number of scientists think we’ve entered the Anthropocene — a time in which human activity is influencing the planet in ways akin to natural forces.

Whilst knowledge about how we affect the planet is accumulating, we also know more and more about how the planet affects us. Projects like ecoSERVICES are revealing that human well-being is intimately linked to the quality of the environment, suggesting that the success of future development projects will be underpinned by how well we safeguard natural resources.

In short, there is an increasing body of theory and evidence that demonstrates how the challenges of a changing environment interact with changing patterns of human development, both in urban and rural areas.

At the heart of all these “wicked” problems is the challenge of improving environmental sustainability at the same time as ensuring well-being for all, including the most vulnerable in society. New research is exploring how to understand development pathways that are environmentally sustainable and just for all in society.

Understanding the nature of links between human and natural systems is complex, but it is crucial that the findings of these studies are then put into action by policymakers, businesses and stakeholders. The globally connected challenges of the 21st century will need an equally interconnected response.

It is no longer enough for scientists, businesses, civil society, nongovernmental organizations, governments or countries to act in isolation — sustainability can only be achieved through a united effort, by sharing knowledge and combining strengths toward a targeted goal.

Innovate tirelessly, and in collaboration

Innovation will be crucial to meeting the basic needs of a growing population, adapting to climate change and decoupling economic growth from consumption of fossil fuels.

Partnerships will need to be created between policy, research, and commercial and social enterprises to provide solutions. Take Google Earth Engine, for example. It brings together the world's satellite imagery dating back over four decades, creating an online data repository that everyone from independent researchers and citizens to local and global policymakers can mine to find out more about topics such as deforestation, land cover, biomass or mapping the world’s roadless areas.

Policymakers also need to think in innovative ways. After 2015, the new sustainable development goals will come into force, and their success will rely on new technologies, behaviors and practices. Stakeholders must work together in the implementation process, using the best available evidence to monitor their implementation and report progress — and ultimately ensure that the SDGs achieve what they set out to do.  

The traditional policy response of overcoming a problem by breaking it down into silos and tackling it piece by piece will not solve the systemic challenges we face now. Future development in a changing world will depend on societies’ ability to work and create knowledge together.

Science may be a way to guide the hand of action. But the only way this knowledge can actually get to the people who need is by working with development actors at all levels. This means pioneering new approaches to co-design and co-produce solutions-oriented knowledge and innovation, bringing development and science closer together to drive the transformation to sustainable development that the planet and its people need so desperately.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Farooq Ullah

    Farooq Ullah is part of Future Earth Engagement Committee and executive director of the Stakeholder Forum. He is as special adviser to the British Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee and a member of the Alliance for Future Generations. Previously, he worked for the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission.