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Unleashing Science

Delivering Missions for Sustainability

We need to urgently redouble efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Business-as-usual approaches – to science and science funding – are no longer appropriate to this massively complex and urgent challenge. Effective action will require broad and bold engagement, and commitment, from science funders, but also from the decisionmakers and influencers in governments, in the private sector and in civil society. The international funding community is ready for the challenge and has requested the International Science Council to lead on the development of a process to convene the necessary voices, jointly designing the way forward. This report is an input into that process It is intended as a strawman, to disrupt our thinking and to inspire ambitious and achievable outcomes.

Unleashing Science

In today’s highly uncertain world, the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs) offer an invaluable framework to guide governments and societies in shaping a
transformative and resilient recovery from COVID-19, creating a more sustainable society in
the long run.
Achieving the transformative vision of the SDGs by 2030 requires an urgent realignment of most countries’ and actors’ priorities and resources towards longer-term, more collaborative, and drastically accelerated action. It also requires game-changing collective action within science systems and funding globally. While science has been recognised as a critical lever in achieving the SDGs, the current capacity of the international science system is not necessarily up to the task to effectively contribute to the transformative, systemic changes needed for human wellbeing to thrive in the 21st century. By contrast, the exceptional role science played in the collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic shows what science can achieve if political leaders and science funders set their minds to it. This includes inter alia the unprecedented speed of vaccine development, data sharing, international research collaboration, fast-tracking of support for research, and scientists’ collaboration with the private sector. Thus, the COVID-19 experience demonstrates that science can play a vital role in solving global crises, however, it is not currently the norm in how science is positioned, organized and incentivized to contribute to addressing global existential threats.

Unleashing the full potential of science is a massively complex and urgent challenge requiring bold, strategic, and collaborative action from governments, science policy makers, science funders, scientists, the private sector and civil society. A qualitative and quantitative step change is needed in science to support critical societal transformations towards a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future. There is an urgent need to step up the pace of progress and redouble efforts of all actors to achieve the SDGs. Relying on business-as-usual approaches is not an option.
The science funding community is ready. Science funders at the 2019 Global Forum of Funders (GFF) recognized the urgent need to scale up game-changing collective action within funding and science systems throughout the world in order to maximize the impact of science towards the implementation of the SDGs. They have requested the International Science Council to lead on the development of a process to convene the insights and ideas of the global scientific community on the critical priorities for science and to jointly design the way forward. This report is an input into that process. It presents a framework of ideas on how science,
along with science funders, policy-makers, civil society and the private sector, could rise to the occasion of acting effectively in the face of urgent and existential risks to humanity. The report offers a Framework to Unleash Mission-Oriented Science, highlighting the need to focus on a limited number of Sustainability Science Missions – in the critical areas of food, energy and climate, health and wellbeing, water, and urban areas – and outlining a potential way forward for the delivery of such missions. It is intended to challenge and, where necessary, disrupt our thinking and inspire ambitious and achievable outcomes. The International Science Council developed this report based on the input collected from an ISC-led global call in 2020 to shape a priority action agenda for science. In addition to the call, the ISC undertook extensive reviews of international research agenda-setting reports and the relevant scientific literature published since the adoption of the SDGs.

The report was developed under the valuable guidance provided by the members of the Scientific Advisory Group who helped to define the scope, analyse the multiple inputs, develop a framework for mission-oriented science, identify an exploratory set of research questions for such missions and review the report. The development of the report would also not have been possible without strategic advice provided by the members of the Steering Committee, representing the partners of the GFF. Its findings were represented at the 2nd Global Forum of Funders, the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Global Research Council and the 2021 United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, and further inputs were integrated in the report. Recognizing the complexity and the urgency of the challenge to maximize science impact towards the Agenda 2030, the International Science Council is establishing a high-level coalition of political leaders, science funders, both national and philanthropic, development aid agencies and scientific strategists to identify practical steps, appropriate institutional arrangements and funding mechanisms, building on the insights provided by the report. As a science community, we must collectively take a much more holistic approach to empowering science for sustainable societal transformations in the 21st century. It is time to be disruptive and do things differently and with imagination and collaboration!