Several international scientific assessments are today produced on a more or less regular basis. How can they really inform, and influence, policies?
There are already means, and organizations that are working, at the international level to link science and society, as we have seen. One of these means are the international scientific assessments that are discussed in the part of the report The Future is Now that we are reading today.
It is important to be reminded about what exists, as all the work that is done is not always well considered. First, the authors give a list of the different kinds of international scientific assessments.
Scientific contributions will help countries navigate the various trade-offs inherent in sustainable development. Progress can also be tracked through a number of international scientific assessments, of which three broad groups can be distinguished:
- Intergovernmental scientific assessments – such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development or the Global Environment Outlook;
- Scientific-technical assessments – such as the United Nations flagship reports including the Global Biodiversity Outlook, the Human Development Report and the World Economic and Social Survey;
- Scientific research collaborations – such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Global Energy Assessment.
Those assessments differ greatly in terms of their scope, scale, organization, participation and perceived degree of policy relevance. However, they all aim to discuss areas of scientific debate, identify common understandings and reach evidence-based consensus on key issues, with a view to informing major policy decisions.
The existing assessments work
Then they remind us how these assessment works, and what they (are supposed to) do.
In any scientific field there is scope for disagreement. Differences can result from dissimilar methodologies, varying research questions, divergent sample sizes and time horizons, errors and so on. Such differences can be resolved through international scientific assessments, which provide forums in which results can be shared, compared and tested among peers; synthesized and refined to find the signal in the noise; and scrutinized to assess remaining uncertainties. Those and other efforts to find consensus can catalyse science, giving rise to new research questions and agendas.
Those assessments generally seek, formally or informally, to guide policies on complex, usually global, challenges. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the Committee on Science and Technology established in accordance with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification have enabled policymakers to determine priority issues and make global and regional assessments. Such efforts seek to bridge the divide between researchers and policymakers. To do so they will need adequate governance structures, knowledge platforms and expert dialogues. They must always engage with multiple stakeholders whose priorities may diverge.
How they could be more useful
And they conclude in underlining some limitations of these assessments, and how they could be overcome.
Current international scientific assessments have their limitations. First, they are often limited in capturing important country-specific or subnational differentiation. In particular, they may not adequately reflect the unique challenges faced by small-island developing States, least developed countries and landlocked developing countries. Second, they may fail to offer solutions and pathways to the 2030 Agenda. Typically, they focus on the impacts of human environmental dynamics on societal goals rather than how such goals can be achieved. Third, they may not always reach agreement or they may fail to resolve major trade-offs, such as managing across the different uses of land – for food production, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration or biofuels.
At the same time, it is important to strengthen synergies and collaborations across scientific assessments, including sharing knowledge and databases and harmonizing protocols and procedures. The 17 Goals can serve as the basis for more coherent messages and guide continuing, expanded assessments of assessments under the auspices of the Global Sustainable Development Report.