Michael E Meadows, President of the International Geographical Union 2020-2024, in this article, explains how sustainable development can be achieved through harnessing the benefits of basic sciences.
Social, economic, environmental and related health issues are receiving increased attention globally and are brought into particularly sharp focus by the global climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis, whereas the coronavirus pandemic has reminded us all of our vulnerability to the vagaries of our relationship with nature.
This, taken together with the development of a ‘post truth’ society (Cosentino, 2020), where social media and its potential to spread fake news has become the dominant means of obtaining information for so many people, suggests that there has never been a more relevant, or important, time for the basic sciences.
Towards achieving UN SDGs
Against such a background, harnessing the broad array of evidence-based natural and social sciences towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is imperative. Although the concept of sustainable development is itself a controversial concept, few would contest that there is an urgent need to address the various imbalances that have led to the ongoing global environmental, social, economic and health problems and threatened the continued existence of our very own species on the planet.
Of course, the basic sciences are important in their own right and, clearly, the quest to understand the natural laws, patterns and processes that underpin our place in the Universe must endure. However, this mission will mean little if we become the architects of our own demise, as seems inevitable if we do not deal with the factors that are constraining progress in regard to the SDGs and realize the sustainable future that these goals target. This begs the question as to how the basic sciences can be directed towards such a future?
I believe that, firstly, we need to acknowledge the interdependence of the natural and social sciences and that it is no longer effective to continue to work only in our disciplinary silos. Relationships between the sciences are nothing new, for example, imagine understanding Physics or Chemistry without Mathematics?
Climate crisis needs more than…
Equally important, however, is that addressing – say – the climate crisis needs more than just a knowledge of climatology and, in addition, requires a thorough knowledge of the socio-economic and political processes that form the foundation of the world order.
Moreover, simply ‘boiler-plating’ societal elements into climate models cannot effect sustainability, and a more comprehensive, inclusive and integrated approach is surely necessary. Such integration is clearly needed, although far from easy, since there are different approaches and methodologies involved in problem-solving between the sciences, let alone between the natural and social sciences, .
Scientific advances may be strongly rooted in specialization and technological expertise but simply doing science well is not enough. Tackling sustainable development entails a higher level of integration both within and between disciplines. Such an approach will never be for everyone, but fostering a more holistic philosophy and engaging with partnerships that reach across the disciplinary boundaries must be considered essential if we are to provide a sound scientific foundation to the SDGs.
Basic sciences making a difference
There is a long way to go if we are to witness the basic sciences making a real difference to sustainable development, although there may be an incentive in that bibliometric analysis shows that interdisciplinary studies are attracting increasing numbers of citations and may even attain better funding performance (Sun et al., 2021).
The International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development (IYBSSD) project suggests that there is, indeed, already a willingness to tackle the global sustainability challenge and to work across traditional scientific boundaries. I would argue that these efforts must be further deepened within our individual subject branches.
An important way of doing this would be to introduce and develop education for sustainable development (ESD) at all levels and accepting that understanding the relevance of basic sciences to resolving the prevailing major global problems is the responsibility of ALL disciplines.
By Michael E Meadows