This post will be looking at the role of science and innovation in the SDGs.

View of the Earth's atmosphere from space

My colleagues have over the last couple of weeks been taking a deep dive into various aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This week I will be looking at the role of science and innovation in the SDGs.

For someone who normally does not venture into this area of policy, the SDGs are at once impressive in their vision and overwhelming in complexity. However, I found more familiar ground in the fact that the agenda is dependent on science, innovation and technology to achieve its ambition.

Multiple roles for science

Science and innovation play three main roles in the SDGs. Firstly, they are goals in and of themselves as key drivers for economic growth and job creation. Secondly, science is central to the implementation of other goals, for example new technological solutions can help address challenges around energy and food security. Thirdly, scientific knowledge can support translation of targets to national policies and help measure and evaluate impact.

Science and innovation as a goal

Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

Goal 9 is the SDG that most directly addresses science and innovation. It looks at the key ingredients needed to increase scientific capabilities and innovation, some of which I set out in this post. However, it has also been criticised for not clearly defining key concepts or quantifying targets.

9.5: Enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of the industrial sectors in all countries, in particular developing countries, including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and substantially increasing the number of research and development workers per 1 million people and public and private research and development spending


Among the most important resource of any country’s science base are the skilled people that work in it. Under Goal 9 (target 9.5) one of several targets for improving the research base is an increase in the number of R&D workers per 1 million people. It is a target that does not appear very often in this context and it will be interesting to see how it will continue to be referred to.

The number of researchers in the workforce vary greatly across the globe. Only 0.5% of the world’s researchers live in less developed countries, whereas 20.1% live in Europe and 21.9% in North America.

The goals have a strong emphasis on support for developing countries. The Royal Society is one of the supporting organisations for the Newton Fund which aims to develop science and innovation partnerships that promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries.

The UK does very well (with 4.1 % of researcher and only 0.9% of global population) but to remain strong it will also need to address demands for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills in the future. Read Sarah’s blogpost to see what the SDGs say about education in general.

Increased public investment

Target 9.5 also calls for a substantial increase in “public and private research and development spending”. Just as the number of skilled workers vary across the globe, so does spending – and it is just as essential to fuel science and innovation.

However, there is no detail on the magnitude of increase required. Public spending in the UK on R&D is 0.49% of its GDP, compared to Sweden, for example, on 0.93 and, Germany on 0.85%. The Society has recommended that UK increase its investment to match the OECD average of 0.67%.


The SDGs give the private sector a much more central role than their predecessor the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Target 9.5 calls for private sector investment into R&D alongside public investment. This matters as public and private spending on R&D is generally thought to have a mutually reinforcing effect and together helps strengthen innovation. Innovation is a key driver for increased productivity and thus for economic growth. This is also emphasised in target 8.2 which calls for higher levels of economic productivity achieved through “diversification, technological upgrading and innovation”.


A “sustainable and resilient infrastructure” is central to goal 9 but it is not the only instance where getting it right will be important. It will also matter in, for example, the use of new and improved energy sources (Goal 7) and for the future of cities and human settlement (Goal 11 – check out Emma’s blogpost for an in-depth look). Policymakers will need to bear in mind this complementarity.

Science helps to implement other goals

Another welcome difference from the MDGs is an increased focus on implementation in the SDGs. As part of this, the UN launched a ‘technology facilitation mechanism’ to promote collaboration and coordination of the use of science, innovation and technology.

These will be central to meet the myriad of challenges set out. Ending hunger (Goal 2) asks for investment into “agricultural research”; ensuring healthy lives (Goal 3) requires more “research and development of vaccines and medicine”; and establishing sustainable consumption and production patterns (Goal 12 – have a look at Sally’s blog for more on this) means supporting “developing countries to strengthen their scientific and technological capacity”.

The role of science in translation and monitoring

Science also has a role to play to ensure that the appropriate expertise is fed into policy development. A high-level political forum  will oversee follow-up and review the SDGs and part of its remit will be to “strengthen the science-policy interface.”

Another aspect of this is the need to strengthen the ability to measure and evaluate impact.

Only half of countries have reliable poverty data. During the MDGs, there was no five-year period that had more than 70% of the data required.

Target 17.8 is to “increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data”. When 57 million infants born in 2012 – that is four out of every ten babies– were not registered with civil authorities this may be easier said than done.

Last year, the UN Secretary General’s  Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, published the report ‘A world that Counts’. It highlighted that gaps in data, particularly in developing countries can exacerbate and increase the very inequalities the SDGs sets out to combat.

Lack of data, poor quality data and regional differences will be a massive challenge for the SDGs. Scientists need to support all aspects of implementation, including ensuring that appropriate metrics, monitoring, evaluation, infrastructure and data are in place.

Trying to cover the role of science and innovation in the SDGs is no easy task. Its underpinning role across the SDGs makes it difficult – and indeed undesirable- to disentangle from the larger picture. The Society will continue to work to promote the vital role science plays for a sustainable future for our planet and the well-being of those who inhabit it.


  • Louise Pakseresht

    Louise Pakseresht