From Science to Practice: Strengthening Research Uptake to Achieve the SDGs

By Maggie Carter

Humanity is currently facing a threat against which scientific knowledge is our most powerful weapon. Researchers are racing to learn more about the invisible enemy that is Covid-19. However, at the same time, we face another threat, one that has been rearing its head in recent years, but is becoming all the more visible in this unprecedented moment: a growing skepticism of and even hostility towards science. While this is hindering global efforts to reduce the spread of Covid-19, it also has implications that go far beyond the current crisis. As we begin the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, in the face of compounding global challenges, the need for evidence-based policy making informed by rigorous scientific research has never been greater. It is in this context that a consortium of Geneva-based research institutes, think tanks, governmental bodies and international organizations convened the two-day conference, “From Science to Practice: Strengthening Research Uptake to Achieve the SDGs”, in December 2019 at the World Meteorological Organization headquarters to explore the possibilities for improving research uptake in policy and decision making in the UN system. A broad range of participants from all sectors worked collaboratively to identify challenges and brainstorm solutions, which are summarized below.

Bridging the science-policy divide

 Scientific research has a great deal to offer efforts to address pressing global challenges and move towards a more just, equal and sustainable world. Beyond specific discoveries, these include the ability to reveal alternative ways of seeing problems, harness a broad range of methodological tools, and occasionally impart paradigm-shifting insights that recast the way problems are approached. However, translating that knowledge into action remains a complicated task. Research often fails to find its way into policy-making circles due to a number of technical, normative, cultural, political, institutional and financial barriers. The way in which scientific research is conceptualized and conducted may not always be conducive to the results-oriented imperatives of policy making, which operates on highly compressed timescales and faces budgetary restrictions placed by distinct interests. And while scientific research is certainly not immune to such pressures and should not be idealized as being purely objective, it often allows more space to maintain relative autonomy. Though these characteristics serve to further key priorities of the two fields—for science, the uninhibited progression of knowledge and discovery, and for policy making, the need to address problems in real-time—they can also lead to negative externalities: scientific research is not always aligned with societal needs and priorities, and policy makers often underestimate the time and resources necessary to collect data thoroughly and responsibly and to develop recommendations.

One proposed solution to bring these two worlds closer together and create better collaboration between scientists and policy makers involves mutual engagement from the very beginning of the process. Participants at the conference suggested that the conceptualization of research projects and policy design should be joint ventures, with researchers and policy makers working together at all stages. Various ideas for facilitating this link were brought forward, from orienting university curricula towards global problem solving, to building dialogues between research communities and policy makers, for example through networking events and cross-sector exchange programmes. Creating such spaces in which researchers and policy makers can engage face to face would go some way towards bridging the gap between the two fields.

The need to build dedicated spaces for conducting research within the UN was also stressed. While there are several UN agencies that conduct scientific research (including the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development [UNRISD], an organizing partner of the conference), there are few incentives and opportunities for this kind of work in UN entities not specifically dedicated to research. A Joint Inspection Unit report presented at the conference by Petru Dumitriu outlines suggestions for how to achieve this, including incentivizing staff members to engage in research, appointing “research champions” within the UN, and enhancing funds available for research.

 Multiplying voices

 Participants also emphasized the need to ensure that policy making is informed by a range of voices coming from a variety of backgrounds to better tackle the SDGs. In particular, many noted a distinct lack of diversity in terms of gender, age, geographical location, discipline and academic background. Southern institutions rarely have the same kind of influence and access to policy makers as those in the global North, heavily biasing the kinds of knowledge that are incorporated and considered in policy-making processes. This exacerbates long-standing hierarchies of knowledge and delegitimizes alternative knowledge structures, in particular those that are embedded in distinctly local paradigms and approaches.

The question of how to invigorate policy making with a diverse set of perspectives was hotly debated during the two days. Many stressed the need to achieve a gender balance of research networks, and to engage with young researchers. Further, strengthening links with Southern institutions was put forward as essential, for example through creating exchange and mentorship programmes, as well as investing in capacity building and commissioning research. Many pointed out that in order to approach the SDGs from all angles, engaging with multiple disciplines and fostering cross-disciplinary exchange is key. Finally, bringing in voices from different professional backgrounds, including civil society and the public and private sectors, can offer new insights to global problems. One could argue that this integrated approach is exactly what the 2030 Agenda asks of us, to look outwards and beyond our siloed communities, to change our mindsets and embrace new perspectives and approaches.

 Speaking each other’s language

However, even when policy makers have access to diverse and wide-ranging scientific knowledge, being able to interpret and translate that knowledge into policy is often a significant challenge in itself. Scientific and policy languages are often quite distinct from each other, and oftentimes there is an insurmountable communication barrier between the two. Conveying complex and nuanced ideas with simple and straightforward language is rarely an easy task. And, on the occasions when research is successfully translated into accessible formats, for example policy briefs, it is often difficult to get these into the hands of policy makers, and even more challenging to ensure that those policy makers reached have the willingness, ability and room for manoeuvre to act on them. At the international level, there are few formal direct processes that feed research findings into the UN system, something the Geneva-based consortium behind the conference is attempting to change.

Several solutions were proposed to this complex problem during the conference. Some revolved around training for scientists to communicate effectively with non-academic audiences. Others focused on the role of intermediaries: communications professionals able to understand research and help communicate it to relevant audiences. In all cases, such communication must be fit-for-purpose and tailored to relevant concerned groups of policy makers.

Making space for science-policy collaboration

 While transforming the science-policy interface may seem like a tall order, the conference itself, and initiatives like it, might be one place to start in surmounting this challenge. In bringing together a broad group of researchers and policy makers and creating a space for innovative collaboration, initiatives such as these can serve as an entry point for scientific research to directly inform policy-making processes.

While the 2019 event was already the second ad hoc edition of this conference, there is a plan in the making to transform it into an annual process to harness the collective knowledge and influence of international Geneva—home to a significant concentration of research institutes, think tanks, NGOs, governmental bodies and international organizations—in order to inform global policy-making processes, in particular the UN High-Level Political Forum, held every year in July. With efforts such as these, perhaps we will come one step closer to building a bridge between these two worlds and pushing forward transformative change, which is needed now more than ever.

Maggie Carter is a research analyst at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

More about the conference:
From Science to Practice: Strengthening Research Uptake to Achieve the SDGs was organized by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) and its Global Governance Centre, Think Tank Hub Geneva, the Geneva Science-Policy Interface, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), the UN Library Geneva, the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) of the UN, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). It took place on 11–12 December 2019 on the premises of the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. A full report of the conference is available here.

Image by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash