THE Impact Summit: embrace of SDGs ‘will not hit basic research’

Neglect of fundamental research is not inevitable when universities focus on sustainability challenges, UN advisor tells Innovation and Impact Summit

April 22, 2020
Source: istock

Basic research will not necessarily suffer if universities put more emphasis on tackling the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, an international conference has heard.

Jaya Krishnakumar, full professor of econometrics at the University of Geneva, was speaking at Times Higher Education’s first ever virtual conference on 22 April – the Innovation and Impact Summit, which, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, had been due to be held at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

Professor Krishnakumar, an adviser to the United Nations Development Programme, said that it was still possible for universities to invest in fundamental or “blue sky” research as the same research could also address the social, ecological and health priorities identified by the UN in its blueprint for sustainable growth, agreed in 2015.

In recent years, many universities across the world have started to align their research and education efforts with the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), which include eliminating hunger, providing clean water and sanitation for all, and reducing social, gender and educational inequalities by 2030.

However, some scholars worry that the growing emphasis on finding practical solutions for these problems will mean applied research is valued far higher than basic research, where applications to practical challenges are often not immediately apparent.

However, Professor Krishnakumar told THE’s summit, joined by almost 1,000 participants globally, that the “concept of SDGs should pervade research – fundamental and applied”.

“Whether it is the development of vaccines, learning about the universe – whatever the research is, it should bear in mind the spirit of SDGs,” she said.

“I would not say that all research should be directed to SDGs but it should always keep them in mind,” added Professor Krishnakumar.

Describing the global agreement on SDGs as a “unique…achievement in humankind”, Professor Krishnakumar said that it was vital for universities to be “part of this big transformation process”.

“They have the competence to go from a theoretical framework and take it into practical application,” she said, adding that SDGs were now integrated into every subject at Geneva “whether it is theology, geology or science subjects.”

“Fundamental research can still be there [within universities] and it can be integrated into a system of SDG research,” she said.

Göran Finnveden, vice-president of sustainable development at KTH, agreed that considering SDGs in research decisions would not inevitably lead to less basic research.

“There is a risk but it is not too bad,” said Professor Finnveden, who added that “this kind of innovation work [found in applied research] often leads to more fundamental research.”

Professor Krishnakumar also praised THE’s new Impact Rankings, in which institutions from 89 countries and regions are assessed in relation to their work linked to the UN’s 17 SDGs. “THE’s metrics [are] an important step not just in how [universities] create research but how they are useful to society,” she said.

Ut V. Le, director of research affairs at Ton Duc Thang University, in Vietnam, added that the impressive response of universities to the Covid-19 crisis had underlined the need for different ways to assess excellence beyond the traditional research and teaching metrics used in most university league tables.

“If universities had only paid attention to research or institutional income, we could not have made the institutional contribution that we did,” said Dr Le.

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