Top challenges for the future of humanity and the planet include sustaining ocean health, reversing biodiversity loss and addressing infectious agents

Leading global experts serving on the UN Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board have identified key scientific challenges that must be addressed to ensure sustainability during their 3rd meeting, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 25-26 May. The central function of the Board is to provide advice on science, technology and innovation (STI) for sustainable development to the Secretary-General and to the UN system. Established by UNESCO on behalf of Ban Ki-moon, the Board brings together the collective capacity of all relevant scientific fields, with due regard to social and ethical dimensions of sustainable development.

“This year, Member States will take decisions to shape a better future for all” explained Ban Ki-moon in his message to the Board. “We must harness the full power and authority of the sciences, to shape and implement the post-2015 development agenda, locally, nationally, regionally and globally. The role of the Scientific Advisory Board is essential in supporting States and societies to chart new paths towards more inclusive, sustainable development.”

The Scientific Advisory Board was officially opened by the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Tan Sri Dato' Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin‎, who underscored the key role of science to creating jobs, generating income, alleviating poverty and safeguarding the global commons. "Achieving each global priority will call for the input of science - science matters to all and underpins almost everything we do."

The Board concluded its 3rd meeting with recommendations on a range of issues from how to coordinate global data collection and create access that reduces the data divide between rich and poor, to improving the use of scientific knowledge in policy-making at all levels, along with advice on leading climate change-related risks.

"Never before has the world faced such a need for sound scientific knowledge and expertise, to better understand and tackle rising global challenges” said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, co-chair of the meeting. “The Scientific Advisory Board brings together a range of disciplines, crossing thematic boundaries and policy lines. We need precisely this kind of 360° vision to better understand the challenges the world faces today and to craft new – vision-driven – solutions to tackle them."

Prof. Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia and co-chair of the Board, underscored that “the Scientific Advisory Board of the Secretary-General is a reflection that science is global, increasingly interconnected and multidisciplinary. The challenge for us now if how to reap maximum benefit of global science; how to ensure that the fruits of science are best used to address current and global issues, and to prepare for the opportunities and challenges of the future.”

Conclusions and recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary-General

Top challenges for the future of humanity and the planet

Last December, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited his advisory board members to identify for his consideration “scientific concerns you have about the future of people and the planet.” Deemed “a great opportunity to leverage the wisdom and the vast and varied experience of all members,” the Board responded by conducting a “Delphi study” on the top challenges for the future of humanity and the planet, identifying “big ideas” to be brought to the attention of the Secretary-General.

Requested from each Board member was the suggestion of one “big idea that would have a global impact in addressing the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over the next 15 years.”  In round two, Board members ranked all suggestions received and in the last round the top ideas were selected for the UNSG’s consideration.

The Board’s list of main concerns includes:

  • One Ocean, Many Countries: Building a “Blue Economy” Sustainably
  • Addressing threats to biodiversity and establishing a new paradigm for the global tropics
  • Developing a Comprehensive Strategy Against Infectious Agents, Including a Global System for Immediate Response
  • Investing a Fraction of GDP in Research and Education in Basic Science
  • Averting Enormous Human Disasters Through Prediction
  • Emissions Free Technology: Changing the Fossil Fuel Paradigm
  • Providing Drinkable Water for All
  • Finding Solutions for a World Overwhelmed by Unequal Resource-use and Continued Population Growth








The study is led by Board member Abdallah Daar, full conclusions will be presented to the Secretary-General in July.

Improving the science-policy interface

According to the Board, “Humanity has already crossed several planetary boundaries. Only an immediate stop to ecosystem destruction, large-scale restoration of ecosystems, and effective family planning might restore global biotic regulation and prevent the collapse of ecosystems, including the human species.”

The Board calls for the Global Sustainable Development Report to be “a high-quality scientific assessment tackling critical concerns. The 2014 Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General, for example, provides an example of a publication that dealt with difficult yet critical issues such as inequality, population, and women's rights. Without reducing inequality, effective family planning, and empowering women, it will be close to impossible to deal with any of the challenges – economic, environmental, social – that the world faces today.”

In a policy brief, the Board will offer a series of recommendations on strengthening the collaborative interface between scientists and policy makers to address the issues and securing a voice for science in the UN’s High-Level Political Forum thus maximizing its effectiveness.

The working group is led by Board member Maria Ivanova.

The Data Revolution: Reducing the data divide between rich and poor

Noting its potential to help drive global sustainable development, the Board prepared a policy brief on “Big Data” and the Information Revolution. While “those with access to data and information will have more power in this new world than those without … a significant fraction of the world lives without easy access,” the Board warns. It urges that priority be placed on efforts to “reduce rather than entrench the data divide between rich and poor” and on “enhancing the equity of access and use of data/information, among countries and stakeholders.”

Highlighting that bridging the digital divide could provide solutions to seemingly unrelated problems such as gender inequality and rural poverty, the Board discussed placing the focus on inclusive approaches that focus more on harnessing knowledge of all types and less on data, in order to facilitate the dissemination and use of multiple types of information by all people. Community-based Monitoring Systems that engage indigenous peoples and local communities to map their resources and implement community development plans guided by their traditional knowledge and cultural values were cited as an example of good practices.

This working group is led by Board member Wole Soboyejo.

Advice on Climate Change ahead of COP 21: Policy Brief on the Risks of Climate Change

Climate change can be framed as an issue of risk management, and risks increase with each passing year as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Considering that policy-makers need full risk assessments in order to make informed decision to prioritize mitigation and adaptation measures, the Board is producing a policy brief on the systemic risks at high degrees of climate change and means to develop a risk-based approach to communicating the risks of climate change to policy.

This working group is led by Board member Carlos Nobre.

The two-day meeting was co-chaired by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia.  The Secretariat of the Scientific Advisory Board is hosted by UNESCO, the meeting was hosted by the Malaysian Government and the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT).

Scientific Advisory Board of the United Nations Secretary-General

The Scientific Advisory Board was created in 2013 at the request of the UN Secretary-General to further inform the debate on sustainable development. The Board is composed of 26 eminent scientists representing all regions and many scientific disciplines relevant for sustainable development: the engineering, political and natural sciences are represented as well as for example oceanic, climate and biodiversity research. In addition, all members of the SAB have extensive and manifold experience with international scientific cooperation as well as the science-policy-society interface.

Board members are appointed in their personal capacity, and not as representatives of their respective States or of any other entities with which they may be affiliated. They will serve on a pro bono basis for a period of two years, with the possibility of renewal for one subsequent two-year term at the discretion of the UN Secretary-General.

Members of the Board:


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