Complex Global Issues Require a Broader and “Connect-the-Dots” Science Approach

The “business as usual” approach to scientific problem-solving — characterized too often by narrow, disconnected, uni-dimensional research — simply isn’t up to the vital task of addressing the world’s increasingly complex, inter-connected problems. More well-funded, multi-disciplinary education and research are essential to meet humanity’s growing needs and the global goals defined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A symposium, held under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is bringing together high-level experts in Malaysia on 19-21 December 2016 to identify ways to apply globally a new approach, known as the Sustainability Science Approach. This meeting is part of a two-year effort, facilitated by UNESCO, to provide Member States with appropriate tools and guidelines and respond to questions arising with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development: What kind of knowledge is needed to inform the 2030 Development Agenda? How can natural and social sciences engage in a dialogue with each other as well as with relevant indigenous and local knowledge? What are the institutional measures that may be required to pursue inter- and trans-disciplinary research and education?

The Sustainability Science Approach entails applying a broader, trans-disciplinary scientific perspective in order to slow and reverse increasingly complex threats to human well-being on track to worsen in the near future. For example, energy, water and food security are recognized as a highly-interrelated trio of fundamental issues confronting policy-makers, who must weigh and balance choices related to one part of the nexus against impacts on the other two.  

Urban planning, infrastructure design and climate science are other closely knit issues, touching on development, industry, natural and social sciences, that require building bridges and connecting dots between various communities, disciplines and knowledge systems, including a wealth indigenous and local knowledge.  The combination of human health and livestock production sciences is among a myriad of other examples.

The symposium is organized in the framework of a two-year UNESCO project on “Broadening the Application of the Sustainability Science Approach " that aims to foster more collaborative, multi-disciplinary research and education worldwide. 

The project was initiated in October 2015 with the support of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (Japan/MEXT), which hosted a first symposium last April.

This second symposium, hosted by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), will focus on regional experiences and help to formulate concrete new international “Sustainability Science Policy Guidelines”. These guidelines will be presented to UNESCO’s Member States during a third and final symposium next fall, in Paris.

The reforms that have been suggested to date include:

  • Co-designing well-funded research
  • Better institutional co-ordination and research direction-setting
  • Mainstreaming knowledge on sustainability issues
  • Shaping the education system to develop a generation of trans-disciplinary scholars and practitioners