In many contexts, the 2030 Agenda has become a common denominator to bring stakeholders in society together and direct them to shared pathways. The agenda helps us talk, reflect, and act. Scientific research and the research community play an important role in achieving the agenda, but the details have been unclear. What are the important knowledge gaps and research needs, and how do we address these gaps through changes in how we do research?

A new report, Forskning för Agenda 2030 – Översikt av forskningsbehov och vägar framåt, addresses these questions.

Research needs for the 2030 Agenda 

Ingrid Petersson, Director General of Formas – the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development – introduced a seminar on 31 August arranged by SEI and Formas where this report was first presented. She said “The 2030 Agenda will require much, it will require a political will, it will require partnerships between different parts of society, robust institutions and knowledge”.

SEI Research Director Åsa Persson presented the report. She explained: “We need to nuance the image that research is only an instrument to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in a straightforward and simple way. We believe that instead of having goal-oriented research according to given models, one must rather take a pluralistic approach.”

This means research that provides solutions to meet the goals, but also critically analyses the agenda and its assumptions regarding social change; highlights positive and negative links between the goals; identifies new sustainability issues; and offers stakeholder forums for honest – and sometimes difficult – discussions on future scenarios.

The report describes research needs relating to three selected goals (12, 14 and 17) as identified through expert workshops and literature reviews. The main conclusions include the point that the 2030 Agenda does not really lead to many new research questions, but – because most questions are already known – we need to understand how to implement and accelerate change.

SEI Research Director Åsa Persson presents the report Forskning för Agenda 2030 – Översikt av forskningsbehov och vägar framåt. Photo: Anneli Sundin / SEI.

Conclusions also focused on the need for applied research, and especially participatory, transdisciplinary action research that involves a wider group of stakeholders. We often see that proposed policy measures do not always work in a given context. Which actions by which stakeholders work under different circumstances? How can we, researchers, more quickly provide feedback and input to decision-makers?

An important conclusion was that how the goals affect each other should be a starting point for partnership and effort prioritisation. Formas’s funding calls should promote this development to better consider the links between the goals and their impact on each other.

We should also remember that the agenda is of a global character, and so we need to better understand spill-over effects – when developments in one country have negative consequences in another – something that calls for increased international collaboration in research. One example of these connected effects is the impacts of Swedish consumption on ecosystems in other countries.

The report addresses the following possible levels of structural changes in Swedish research policy, financing and communication.

Incremental changes within the current system 

Policy-makers, practitioners and the scientific community can take a variety of measures that could help achieve ambitions of the 2030 Agenda. Among other things, we need to strengthen science communication and increase the amount of available data. One tangible proposal is to conduct an annual research conference on the 2030 Agenda where innovative communication, storytelling and social media methods are used to reach a wider set of stakeholders.

The report also elaborates on how to better monitor and analyse the effect of measures taken to achieve the SDGs. It would, for example, be valuable to enable more opportunities for researchers to closely study how a measure is introduced and implemented as well as its results, both from a technical, social and economic perspective.

Navigating outside business as usual 

A word that pervades several of the suggestions in the report is coordination. The report suggests the following:

  • Relevant stakeholders should improve structures for cooperation between business, government, foundations, universities and other academic institutions.
  • Different government agencies should aim to have a shared overview of research issues connected to Agenda 2030 and existing knowledge gaps.
  • We need to strengthen the international influence of Swedish research. It would be a step in the right direction if stakeholders could better coordinate the processes of developing the Swedish research and innovation bill and Sweden’s contribution to the EU framework programs.

In addition, Swedish research funding should require including perspectives and skills from other countries, especially from low-income countries.

Transforming the current system 

Is it time to look with fresh eyes on the innovation system and policy? What does “sustainable growth” truly mean and what role does innovation have today and in the future? Technological solutions and today’s streamlining of industries and businesses favour economic growth and, consequently, continued negative exploitation.

There is now a chance to let innovations in the developing parts of the world go beyond Western countries’ traditional thinking about topics like energy, consumption and waste. The Swedish research system is not paying much attention to such original innovation projects today. A shift in focus to alternative areas like social inequality, unemployment and climate change might be needed to enable more non-technical innovations to take place. These types of innovations, which have their starting point in solving social problems or in creating business models for circular economy, have a somewhat untapped potential to contribute to the global implementation of Agenda 2030. The report authors suggest we need to reinforce research and innovation efforts for projects that are largely carried out in these low and middle income regions of the world.

Panel discussion at the seminar Agenda 2030 – Forskningsbehov och vägar framåt, hosted by Formas and SEI in August 2018.  Photo: Anneli Sundin / SEI.

“With just 12 years left to the 2030 deadline, we must inject a sense of urgency. Achieving the 2030 Agenda requires immediate and accelerated actions by countries along with collaborative partnerships among governments and stakeholders at all levels. This ambitious Agenda necessitates profound change that goes beyond business as usual.”—António Guterres, Secretary-General, in the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018.

Beyond 2030

Perhaps the most important role of research is to look beyond 2030. What challenges will we face then? What goals will society not achieve in 2030 that we really need focus on in the following decades? Research can be supported to start formulating ideas for the next framework for a sustainable future.

“We see this as a central task for researchers to take on a forward-looking role,” Persson said during the seminar.

Until we reach 2030, research should use the agenda in the best possible way. The report tells us that “most likely, the agenda itself will not lead to a unified or definitive model of how research should be conducted to be as useful, effective, innovative, ground-breaking or legitimate as possible. But we see that the interest is great for accelerating solution-oriented, interdisciplinary and applied research and to use the agenda as a force for more knowledge-based decisions.”

About the report

This report was made possible through a project grant from Formas. The aim was to provide a scientific and systematic analysis of research needs for the 2030 Agenda in a Swedish context, and provide suggestions on what measures we need to undertake to ensure research helps in achieving the ambitions of the agenda.

Access the report (main report in Swedish, with annexes in English): Forskning för Agenda 2030 – Översikt av forskningsbehov och vägar framåt.