How Science Can Tackle the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The keynote address during the #LINO19 opening ceremony by Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt was entitled “Big Questions for Society, Big Questions for Research”, and was something that stayed with me throughout the week.

Schmidt spoke of political instability and uncertainties, technological advancement at an unprecedented scale, and unsustainable use of the Earth’s resources. And it is not just Schmidt who is talking about these challenges facing the world today.

In 2015, world leaders from 193 member states of the United Nations agreed to 17 goals for us all to strive towards for a better world by 2030. These goals have 262 corresponding targets, and 169 indicators – each of them aimed at ending hunger, fighting inequality and stopping climate change and collectively forming the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The goals provide a framework for us all – in governments, businesses, the civil society and general public – to work together to build – or at least preserve – a better planet and future life for everyone. These goals are unique in that they call on all countries: rich, poor, big, small, to work towards them. They are also exceptional as they recognise the importance of all industries and sectors in their success, and for us, this means that science and scientists must play a key part if the goals are to be achieved.

In 2015, 193 states agreed to 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

What Can Science and Scientists Do to Solve Some of the Most Pressing Problems of Our Time?

I believe the following three areas could be used to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals from a scientific perspective: curiosity and the quest for new innovation, embedding sustainable practices and materials, and effective communication.

Curiosity and the quest for new innovation is arguably the most important and distinguishing factor in science and scientists addressing some of the most complex challenges facing us today.

History is littered with examples of how scientific discovery has revolutionised life on earth. It is also littered with anecdotes and tales of how accidents, mistakes and luck have led to major discoveries, perhaps none more recognisable than that of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize for medicine in 1945.

In his Nobel Lecture, Fleming spoke of the accidental path that lead him to this discovery, and this his curiosity into the unwanted effect on a culture plate “demanded investigation”. The after effect of which has led to antibiotics being commonplace, transforming medicine – and human life – as before this significant discovery, a papercut could kill.  

Fleming also warned of the dangers of antibiotic resistance, 50 years before those warnings were taken with any seriousness, and that is now key to maintaining human life on earth, something Ada Yonath also discussed in her talk “The Ribosome – a connection between the Prebiotic Origin of Life and Next Generation Antibiotics” at 69th Lindau Meeting this year.

 

Part of Alexander Fleming’s Nobel Lecture in 1945. © The Nobel Foundation 1945

Embedding sustainable practices and materials in our field, research and development and policy has the potential to have transformative impact on our field and the world around us. In the not too distant past, silicon was the chosen option for electronics, steel in construction, and aluminium for aerospace, as mentioned by Nobel Laureate Konstantin Novoselov in his #LINO19 lecture “Materials of the Future”.  Increasingly however, consumers, businesses and the general public are demanding more and more sustainable products and services, and recognising the challenges we face as a species, shown most clearly in today’s society through the push for renewable instead of non-renewable materials for energy. Novoselov argued that we should not be “slaves to […] materials” and merely “[adapt] an old platform for the new realities”. Instead, in order to revolutionise, we must choose and advance new materials as an important aspect for the future and for future applications, and building new materials atom by atom should be considered, using 2D materials. This was supported by Jari Kinaret at the Science Breakfast, who confirmed that graphene looks as though it will be sustainable for the next 800 years. In my research, I focus on sustainable materials for data storage devices, and avoid the Critical Raw Materials as identified by the EU, and believe this is something that should be adopted across all research going forward.

Effective communication is key to science enabling global solutions. Many people use the quote that “knowledge is power” but knowledge is only powerful if we know how to share it in a meaningful way. I believe that science and scientists have the power to unlock the biggest problems facing the world today, and that language, storytelling and education are key to bridging this gap.

As mentioned in the final panel discussion at the 2019 Lindau Meeting “How can science change the world for the better?” Schmidt and others spoke about the influence and power that we hold as a field, and it is our responsibility to use our expertise and influence to hold others account on the subject of ethics.

Nobel Laureate Steven Chu referenced that with rapidly increasing populations and  decreasing middle classes, elites are seen as part of the problem, and scientists part of the elites – it is therefore our responsibility to speak out without trying to sound elite, and recognising the importance of social, cultural and political implications and the use of our language to get across important messages.

Throughout the week, Chu also advised the young scientists to use their knowledge in government, and help to drive policy change. 2016 Lindau Alumna Adriana Marais seconded this by encouraging young scientists to be leaders in their field, and Nobel Laureate Claude Cohen-Tannoudji talking about the importance of lifelong learning and teaching others. Tim Luce, Head of the Science & Operations Department at ITER, summarised these issues well when he stated that we need to see ourselves as citizens as well as scientists; we are first and foremost, members of a global community.

International young scientists at the Bavarian Evening at #LINO19. © Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

The world is bigger than all of us, and our collective strength is powerful and impactful if we are seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem. This includes diversity in our thinking, inclusion of marginalised people and countries in our work, and our impact on policy change. Individual action drives collective change. There are plenty of challenges facing the world today, and some that seem insurmountable. But as Brian Schmidt closed with on the final day of Lindau 2019, “Hope is in the room”, in the form of the 580 young scientists from around the world with their own networks and communities in 89 countries.

I believe that together we can work, participate in areas outside of our existing fields, and use the scientific and Sustainable Development Goals framework to make a positive impact in the world and help make progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

About Samer Kurdi

#LINO19 young scientist Samer Kurdi is an experimental physicist and material scientist focusing on addressing capacity limits in conventional data storage devices. He is very passionate about supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals through his research and beyond: he is Co-Founder of Majico, a social enterprise providing water treatment solutions in developing countries and truly values multicultural collaboration and exchange, having lived and worked in seven countries spanning four continents. He is interested in communicating science to a wider audience in order to bridge the gap between scientists, policy makers and the general public, for positive impact.

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