What is essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Michel Spiro, President, International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, said it is basic sciences.
Do we have enough basic science to achieve the SDGs?
No. It is necessary to invest more. It is true that many countries have committed to allocating between 1% and 3% of their Gross Domestic Product [GDP] to science and technology, but, from what we have seen, many are still struggling to reach their own investment targets in this area. In addition, governments, in general, tend to privilege research activities that give a visible and immediate return, and consider resources for the basic sciences an extravagance. This does not seem to me to be a sensible attitude, mainly because we know from past experiences that research driven by the intellectual curiosity of scientists is the source of knowledge that future generations will use to face their problems.
Where are the main gaps?
In all SDGs, as they are deeply connected with each other. For example, one of the goals is to ensure sustainable production and consumption patterns in the world by 2030. This means that we will need to develop strategies that allow us to carry out sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, in order to reduce the generation and disposal of waste. Realize that, for this, we will have to substantially increase the share of renewable energies in the global energy matrix. That is, one goal depends on the other.
And how do these goals depend on the basic sciences?
One of the ideas behind the sustainable development goals is to achieve a circular economy model, based on reusing natural resources and reducing waste. For this, it will be necessary to invest in strategies that are able to decarbonize the electricity sector as much as possible. This depends on many innovations and these innovations depend on concepts and knowledge produced by basic sciences, which can not only help to improve the performance of batteries and supercapacitors, but also generate completely new ideas, capable of going beyond and creating new paradigms.
Can you give an example of a major contribution from the basic sciences?
One of the most prominent examples of the links between basic research and socioeconomic change was the transistor. The first transistor appeared on the market in the early 1950s, after nearly half a century of basic research in public laboratories. This paved the way for the development of the first chips. Since then, the miniaturization of integrated circuits has made it possible to manufacture increasingly smaller devices, many of which are used today in food production, in the generation of clean energy, in the development of drugs, vaccines, etc. It is this type of contribution that we should seek.
Are there more advanced countries in this sense?
South Korea, Israel, the United States, Japan and European nations are playing an important role.
What are they doing?
They seem to have understood the strategic importance of basic sciences for the development and competitiveness of their economies, strengthening national defense and maintaining the health and well-being of their population, and have increased funding for projects of this nature. What we want now is to go further and highlight the importance of basic sciences for sustainable development as well. It is important to understand that these surveys seek to answer fundamental questions, allowing us to move forward and face concrete problems – even though a part of it will serve exclusively to expand the threshold of knowledge. In any case, truly revolutionary ideas take a long time to mature. In developing countries there still seems to be resistance to this type of research, which is understandable. Faced with the scarcity of resources, it is natural for governments to want to privilege studies that provide visible and immediate return. But like I said, that doesn’t seem like a smart decision to me.
What are the objectives of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development?
Overall, we want to highlight the links that exist between the basic sciences and sustainable development. The basic sciences are driven by curiosity and investigation. They constitute the foundations of education and the source of ideas and discoveries that can radically change our understanding of scientific concepts and create paradigms. They are, therefore, essential for inclusive sustainable development, capable of reducing global inequalities and promoting well-being on a healthy planet. We want to convince political leaders, businessmen and society in general about this vision.
What were the main results achieved so far?
We have held conferences in several countries in an attempt to promote the exchange of ideas between scientists and the interested public, in order to raise awareness of the role of basic sciences in efforts to achieve the goals of sustainable development. The first was the opening ceremony at Unesco headquarters in June 2022 in Paris. There were several round tables with scientists, heads of state and government and private sector representatives. We also held a large event in Vietnam and Serbia, with the participation of scientists from Eastern Europe, such as Russia and Ukraine. We have other conferences scheduled to take place in Honduras and Rwanda, with no set dates yet.
One of the objectives of the International Year is to promote scientific education and training. Why is this important to achieving the SDGs?
Because they are at the base of scientific progress. There is no basic science without skilled and curious individuals. Therefore, it is important to ensure that young people and children have access to quality science education from an early age. This can whet their appetite for research and an academic career. Learning the scientific method at school will teach them the importance of trial and error, of testing hypotheses and re-examining their assumptions when new evidence emerges. Children learn to value the search for the truth, strengthening the fight against the spread of misinformation. Whatever career they choose to follow, these acquired skills can be applied in many areas of their lives.
And what can scientists do to collaborate in this regard?
Engage in teaching activities in schools, for example, explaining to young people and children what they study, the importance of their research, what impacts they can have on society, arousing their curiosity for scientific work.
It is easy to identify the role of basic sciences in combating climate change, promoting industrialization and fostering innovation, but how can they be used to achieve goals such as promoting peace and strengthening ties between countries?
Through research collaborations and science diplomacy. We have highlighted the importance of supporting more inclusive research, involving the effective participation of women scientists and other minorities, and of initiatives that promote the circulation of researchers. It is essential that science is adequately funded and that researchers have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other institutions and countries, in order to promote intercultural dialogue and peaceful cooperation between peoples.
And how can the basic sciences help to promote more inclusive societies and gender equality?
Including women in basic research efforts is one of the key messages we’ve been trying to get across at the conferences we’ve held around the world over the last few months. Iupap itself has been trying for some years to encourage the participation of women in physics. I think that connecting basic sciences to sustainable development is a way to make it more inclusive, and vice versa. More diversity in science means more people thinking about the problems we have and how to tackle them.
Was the pandemic able to alert political leaders about the risks of privileging the funding of applied science to the detriment of basic science?
Basic sciences were and still are fundamental in the fight against the new coronavirus. Few people realize this, but it was the basic sciences that allowed us to understand the mechanisms of action of this pathogen and to develop immunizers in record time. But it doesn’t seem to me that this has been able to change the perception of some political leaders regarding the importance of basic sciences in facing complex global problems, especially in the current context of economic crisis and wars.
What are scientists working in core disciplines doing and what could they do better so that their work can play a more meaningful role in efforts to achieve a sustainable future?
The business as usual model is no longer an option. That is, it is not enough just to do research and publish scientific articles. Every researcher, through his or her institution, especially when financed with public funds, needs to make an effort to connect with society, engaging in education initiatives, promoting gender equity, and protecting the environment. They need to be more involved in global decision-making processes, helping decision makers to make more effective policies.
How can adopting open science practices improve the use of basic sciences to achieve the SDGs?
Scientific knowledge must be understood as a universal good, essential for the world to face common problems. In this sense, open science is fundamental to achieving the goals of sustainable development, being extremely important for the dissemination of basic science results. It is clear that this vision may collide with the particular interests of some countries, which see this information as something strategic for their development and competitiveness, especially in a context of rising nationalist and protectionist tendencies. It turns out that the world is facing urgent and complex issues, and to face them, we need to promote collaboration and data sharing. Open science, in this sense,
How do developing countries like Brazil position themselves in these efforts?
Brazil has a long tradition of basic science research. I hope this will continue and that the newly elected government will again focus more on sustainable development.
Rodrigo de Oliveira Andrade
Find the original interview (in Portuguese) here.