Co-created knowledge to strengthen sustainable societies

The 'Davos of Science' has just been held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between 24th and 27th November 2013. Also known as the World Science Forum (WSF), this is a biannual meeting of scientists and decision-makers in the world of politics and industry. This year's 6th edition focused on science for global sustainable development in its environmental, economic and social dimensions-overlapping with many of the themes covered in the Millennium Development Goals. One of the key goals of the WSF is to ensure that evidence-based knowledge feeds into policies applied on a global, regional and local level to foster transitions to more sustainable societies, as outlined in their conference declaration.

The trouble is that achieving the unique goal of achieving sustainable societies is quite a challenge. Particularly, given the differences between so called well-developed countries like Europe and North America, evolving economies such as the so called BRICS States-namely, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa-and  those in the Association of ten Asian Countries (ASEAN) as well as the 51 small island developing states (SIDS), referred to as vulnerable countries.

Finite resources require creative solutions

To achieve global sustainable economic growth, it may therefore be necessary to look at the world as a closed system. "There are only two things that are not limited on our planet, one is sunshine and the other is gravity," says Ann Glover, scientific advisor to EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso and a biologist, "Everything else is limited." We will have nine billion people on this planet by mid-century, she argues, there are simply not enough resources to allow the prospering of that number of people.

Some further creative thinking may be required before reaching sustainability. "I am intrigued by people talking about sustainable economic growth, because as a biologist I know that you cannot have sustainable growth," she adds. "It is just not possible because resources are limited," she contends. "We need a better partnership with politicians and economists to challenge them to be a bit more imaginative about what a sustainable future may look like," she remarks, "because all I know is, it is not the same as where we are now."

Ultimately, she concludes, "we have to translate evidence into policies". This basically means to use consolidated scientific knowledge to advise policy makers and societies and help them reach sustainability.

This recommendation does not solely apply at national level. Science policy also needs to reach out across borders. The extent to which it can influence politicians has yet to be seen. But, already, science diplomacy is a new discipline that has become the object of an eponymous quarterly journal, published by the Center for Science Diplomacy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It covers initiatives relying on science to build bridges between countries.

Building scientific capacity through knowledge co-production

A prerequisite for each geopolitical region's path to sustainability will invariably stem from first tackling poverty. "We have to recognise and acknowledge that we are living on a finite planet with limited resources and that there is no sustainable development if we have poverty," says Lidia Brito, director of the UNESCO division of science policy and capacity-building in Paris, France. Therefore, "one of the key challenges of all of us is that we have to eradicate poverty."

She points to potential solutions that could be identified through the likes of the recently launched ten-year research programme, called Future Earth, supported by the International Council of Science. It is designed to provide the knowledge needed to tackle the most urgent challenges of the 21st century, related to global sustainability.

To this end, the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges humanity is facing is tremendous. "This raises the question of scientific capacity of well-developed, evolving und vulnerable countries," Brito adds. She believes that because knowledge produced in one place cannot completely influence a complete other knowledge, the ability to build capacity internationally and locally is crucial. She suggests that this leads to "the necessity to co-design and co-produce knowledge across countries to build the scientific capacities needed".

Emerging co-creation knowledge centres

There are already some examples of countries where local scientific capacity has been built and used to the social benefit of the country. For example, "knowledge is essential, when we talk to the government showing evidence, for instance that Brazil became one of the largest producer and exporter of food through science," says Jacob Palis, current president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and a mathematician from Rio de Janiero. Brazil itself, is the sixth largest economy by GDP. However, the country is number ten in Latin America in terms of UN human development index (HDI)-an index combining life expectancy, educational attainment and income.

In this context, science and technology could also have a role in fostering social innovation. Brazil should also be able to explore deep sea oil and gas with science and technology, Palis believes. For example, 75% of the Brazilian revenues of the exploitation of an offshore oil and gas field Papa-Terra, located about 70 miles southeast of Rio de Janeiro, will be invested in to education and 25 % spent on public health.

A global development perspective is key

The question of the sustainability of achievements by science and technology, however, remains tricky. "In interconnected world economies, competition and cooperation need to be balanced," says József Pálinkás, current President of Hungarian Academy of Sciences, based in Budapest, who is also an atomic physicist and a former Minister of Education.

"Sustainable development can only happen in our lifetime, if we think of global environment, economy and even global societies," notes Pálinkás. The latter is also globalised in terms that "even if you never move from your home town your pension fund will be affected by some investment at the other part of the world, in that sense societies are globalised," he adds.

As a scientist who also worked in the political arena, Pálinkás therefore explains that if there is "continuous strong competition and no cooperation, this will make the system unstable." This means, in this global economy or kind of 'global house' we built, we need stabilising factors, because "unsustainable development on a global scale induces risks between countries and regions," he concludes. An example of a stabilising measure is the regulation of the flow of short-term capital; gradual as opposed to relaxation of capital controls.

Finally, in addition to contributing to fulfilling many of society's expectations, scientific knowledge can also help managing the environmental, technological and economic risks likely to have an impact on society.


(Dino Trescher to / Photo credit: United Nations)




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