United Nations

The 77th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nation a discussion on Science ends with the Launch of Group of Friends to increase the role of science in decision-making across member states with the aim to enhance multilateral cooperation and exchange of information and data.

UNScientists and experts have called on policymakers to regularly seek and integrate scientific data and expertise in the work of the General Assembly. And some diplomats responded by launching an informal platform to expand the role for data and scientific knowledge in Member States’ discussions and negotiations.

The Group of Friends on Science for Action was announced on Wednesday by Belgium, India and South Africa, as part of an effort to tackle complex and interconnected global crises, such as climate change, and preventing and responding to global pandemics.

Responding to the announcement, the President of the General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, encouraged other Member States to join the forum, the establishment of which he called “an important step forward towards multilateral cooperation and exchange of information and data”.

The Group was launched at the closing of the second scientific briefing of the General Assembly, organized by President Kőrösi in line with his priority of injecting science into the work of the United Nations.

The all-day event was comprised of three panels, featuring scientists and experts from around the world, as well as diplomats, representatives from the private and public sector, and civil society organizations.

Beyond GDP: measuring matters

Going beyond Gross Domestic Product was the topic of the first panel, the creation of an index to measure sustainability which has been in discussion since the Sustainable Development Goals were created.

“We should have started developing it the next day as we adopted the SDGs,” President Kőrösi said in his opening remarks to the scientific briefing, challenging the panelists to collectively create some common metrics.

That is not to say that Gross Domestic Product isn’t useful.

Statistician Stefan Schweinfest defended GDP, saying it is “actually a bit of a success story” for the UN, which has trained thousands of government officials in how to measure statistics, resulting in figures that are “country-owned, comparable over time and between countries”.

But GDP cannot do all the jobs, Mr. Schweinfest said: “If you’re trying to eat soup with a fork, don’t blame the fork. It’s the wrong tool. The spoon has been invented.”

This was echoed by Anu Peltola, Acting Director of Statistics at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) who likened GDP to an antibiotic, saying it “is powerful but needs to be used with care for the impact we want.”

Ms. Peltola said that GDP is not intended to be used as a measure of wellbeing, sustainability or progress even.

GDP may grow because of overuse of resources, rebuilding after a disaster or because of illegal activities, she noted.

It does not measure the kind of growth a country has, its equality or the conditions it is generated in, such as job safety or fair wages.

That is the concept of Beyond GDP, according also to Rutger Hoekstra, from the Institute of Environmental Sciences, who has been working on a replacement for GDP for more than 15 years.

He said that it stems from unease that citizens are working for the economic system rather than the economic system working for the citizens, and in widening inequality and a feeling among people that there is a lack of attention on the well-being of future generations and the planet.
Mr. Hoekstra advocated for a policy paradigm for citizens, that included wellbeing, inclusion and sustainability.

Concerns about inequality and an obsession with productivity and gains were also noted by Amit Kapoor, a researcher from the Institute for Competitiveness in India and also Stanford University.

He gave examples of studies done in India, such as looking at the quality of life for the elderly and taking into account criteria such as financial wellbeing, social wellbeing, health system and income security.

Thierry Watrin, from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning in Rwanda, encouraged a recalibrated approach that would take into account gender equality, for example, as well as human capital, health and the environment.

These discussions, as Deborah Sills, Deloitte’s Global Public Sector Consulting leader, told the panel, show the consensus about the need for “Beyond GDP”. At issue is what specific categories to measure and whether there are broad enough data to be meaningful.

She said that the private sector generally supports consistent, common measures and is especially interested in a “Beyond GDP” model because of stakeholder expectations.

“Our employees choose to work with us not just for the paycheck, but for the impact that we make in the world, our values,” she said.

As Governments tackle climate change, poverty, and other global challenges, having regulations that are based on consistent measures, is something the private sector is closely watching.

Food Security

In a panel discussion on “Food Security and Sustainability Transformation,” experts agreed that an interdisciplinary approach is critical to designing food policies that accurately diagnose problems, identify overlaps and trade-offs and address the unintended consequences of strategies aimed at ensuring the world’s 8 billion citizens have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times.

“The world has the ability to feed 10 billion and to do it in a sustainable manner,” President Kőrösi said, in opening remarks.

Today, however, humanity is blasting through several planetary boundaries.

“The science is crystal clear that our food systems are a huge part of the problem,” explained Olav Kjørven, Senior Director for Strategy at the EAT Foundation, placing growing pressure on biosphere integrity, as well as phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. “This is dangerous, this is high risk.”

Concerted action to “fix” food can drive progress on most of the Sustainable Development Goals “like nothing else,” he said.

Evidence is building that healthy, sustainable and just food systems transformation is imperative and practically feasible, highly investible and already actionable, he stressed.

Rikin Gandhi, CEO and co-founder of Digital Green, described efforts to facilitate video sharing of climate-smart agricultural practices among rural farmers, citing programmes in India, Ethiopia, Kenya, across South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, connecting 4 million farmers – more than 70 per cent of whom are women.

Mr. Gandhi said the use of videos by and for farmers drives down the costs of motivating one farmer to apply one climate smart practice, from $35 to $3.50.

“We need to address challenges of accessibility, especially for women who are contributing the lion’s share of the labour but are so excluded from extension and digital technologies,” he emphasized.

To support these decisions, Ravi Kanbur, Co-Chair of the Food Systems Economics Commission, said his organization explores alternative pathways for the global food system to achieve better outcomes for the environment, health and inclusion.

To understand what is holding back change, he said it is important to look at the interplay among incentives – such as price changes and regulations –, innovations and investments.

He encouraged participants to consider the creation of a food transformation fund to address these components, and to start an institutional conversation on how to manage global monitoring.

On that point, Inbal Becker-Reshef, Program Director of NASA Harvest, emphasized that satellite data hold vast possibilities monitoring agricultural lands.

Satellite data are largely free, accessible and open, she added, including for de-risking the transition to sustainable agricultural practices.

Corinna Hawkes, Director of FAO’s Food Systems and Food Safety, said the history of policy and practice to enhance food security through staple food production is littered with unintended consequences – from climate change and biodiversity loss to obesity and undernourishment –, all of them leading to inadequate resilience.

She argued for a shift away from “silo thinking” – which uses science as a means for enhancing productivity – to a systems-thinking approach, which understands food production and consumption have unintended consequences and that science is needed to make decisions that minimize the inevitable trade-offs.

“If solutions to food insecurity are to be sustainable, we must advance science and systems-based evidence to help States and stakeholders assess trade-offs and synergies,” she said, and provide solutions that consider sustainability in all its dimensions.

Scientific Support System for the UN

The third panel of the day focused on scientific support for the United Nations, which came down to data and gathering statistics.

Samira Asma, the Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization (WHO), posed the question of “how to leverage information despite data gaps and use it to influence public policy and drive impact in countries,” especially at a time when the world is at only about a quarter of the pace it should be to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

She answered her own question by pointing to cooperation and international collaboration.

Riko Oki, the Deputy Director of Earth Observation Research Centre in Japan Aerospace Agency, said that any way forward needs a concerted effort.

She stressed that “no single country can build a satellite constellation” which is needed to understand the global crises at that scale. “We are sharing this planet.”

Ms. Oki also noted the importance of using local experts and collaborating with people at the grassroots levels.

This idea was also discussed by Felix Ankomah Asante, Vice Chancellor at the University of Ghana, who stressed that the issue of Indigenous knowledge has to be considered because a lot of local communities use Indigenous knowledge to combat climate change, for example. These national measures or initiatives are “not reflected in global data sets.”

Mr. Asante also advocated for collaborations with universities and research centres, saying they often have the structures in place useful for policy makers, and can provide “very qualified” expertise to make sure data gathering is systematic across countries.

This is urgently needed, since only about half of the world’s countries have data on the SDGs, said Claire Melamed, CEO of the Global Partnerships for Sustainable Development Data.

“Improving data systems would cost less than 1% of all of overseas official development assistance,” she said, adding that every $1 USD invested in data offers an economic return of $32 USD.

“We should not think of data as a drain on our budgets. Quite the contrary, these are investments in progress for people, on climate change, on economic growth.”

As the last speaker of the day, Salvatore Arico, CEO of the International Science Council, summed up that science cannot be prescriptive and can only present options and implications of those options.

Science is about “clarity of the language, the need to dispel from the very outset, speculation, miscommunications and mistrust. And on the contrary, to promote persuasion through logic,” he said, highlighting the use of science for diplomats.

Source: United Nations

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