Science, technology and innovation is not addressing world’s most urgent problems – major new study

October 19, 2022
Aude Rossignol - UNDP / Democratic Republic of Congo

New York - Global science 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, finds a major new international study published today. As such, the authors find, science, technology and innovation research is not focused on the world`s most pressing problems including taking climate action, addressing complex underlying social issues, tackling hunger and promoting good health and wellbeing. 

This is 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 the UN Development Programme; the University College London; the United Nations University; the National Scientific and Technical Research Council, Argentina; the Centre for Research on Innovation and Science Policy, India; Leiden University, The Netherlands; the Graduate School of Technology Management, South Africa; and Nesta, UK.

Changing directions: Steering science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals found that research and innovation around the world is not focused on meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are a framework set up to address and drive change across all areas of social justice and environmental issues. 

Critically, the report finds that research in high-income and middle-income countries contributes disproportionally to a disconnect 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% of SDG-related inventions in high-income countries were 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 Global South — and across areas such as health, food or energy — research and innovation funds tend to be spent on technologies that benefit private interests, rather than on those that more directly address social and environmental problems. The research shows that most high-income countries do not prioritise research on the major environmental challenges associated with unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

The research also finds that, even though a majority of stakeholders consider social, policy and grassroots innovations critical to addressing the SDGs, support for these types and forms of innovations, and related research on complex underlying social issues of deprivation, inequality and conflict, lags far behind.

Andy Stirling, Professor of Science & Technology Policy, with the Science Policy Research Unit in the Business School at the University of Sussex says:

“If we don’t see an urgent overhaul in the way science and technology research is undertaken, we will not do justice to the biggest problems we face – including preventing disease, tackling climate change and fairly distributing food. Failing to address this challenge will further embed research and innovation as just another way to accumulate power and wealth for those who already have it. What we need is more equality, diversity and democracy in research and innovation.

“The world is facing unprecedented challenges and governments, policy-makers and those who commission research urgently need to realign the work they commission in light of our greatest challenges, as set out in the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals. It needs to be ok to say no to the direction of innovations if they are not going to help us effectively tackle our biggest problems.”

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

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

The authors of the Steering Research and Innovation for Global Goals (STRINGS) project are urging science, technology and innovation to be made more democratic, and more closely aimed at achieving sustainability. This includes an increase in 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 support from the UN Development Programme to get this project off the ground, Haoliang Xu, UN Assistant Secretary General and Director of UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support explains:

"The world is in turmoil. Profound economic, political, and ecological disruptions are threatening to derail the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). However, as this year’s Human Development Report puts it: “There is opportunity in uncertainty” – 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 readjusting the funding and governance architecture of STI for a step change in our efforts to reach the SDGs and leave no one behind."

In brief, the report calls for:

Other recommendations from the report also include:

  • Funding more research that explicitly investigates tensions and synergies between different aspects of sustainability, including providing greater support for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. 
  • Including LIC researchers and stakeholders in the advisory and management committees of funders, to ensure their views are considered in planning, defining and evaluating research agendas.
  • Ensuring that decisions about which science, technology and innovation pathways to prioritize involve stakeholders affected by those decisions.
  • Setting up a global platform observatory to conduct regular surveys of global research and development, its diversity, inclusion, scale, locations, purposes and impacts; bringing together constellations of funders; and creating global funding pools. 

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