US research universities join bid to meet UN development goals

More than 60 US institutions to work with 800 others worldwide in tackling global strategy on environment, education and equality

December 5, 2018
United Nations HQ
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More than 60 US universities have joined an international effort to direct their research resources towards meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Some 800 universities and other research groups worldwide have already begun programmes to address the 17 UN goals, which include providing inclusive and equitable quality education, and achieving gender equality.

The new US effort will be led by academic centres at Columbia University, Yale University, and the University of California, San Diego.

Such research universities have long worked on topics relevant to the UN goals. But universities acting separately or in small groups have struggled to address major technical and political challenges surrounding the UN goals, organisers said.

“That’s why we are making no progress” in areas such as decarbonisation of global energy supplies, said Jeffrey Sachs, a renowned professor of economics at Columbia. Professor Sachs directs the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the UN-chartered entity for marshalling technical resources towards the goals.

In that decarbonisation example, Professor Sachs said, the US needs a detailed strategy for building a nationwide grid infrastructure that identifies proper amounts of alternative energy sources, power storage facilities and their locations.

Governments and the private sector have failed to carry out such planning, putting pressure on university scientists to do it, he said. “The market cannot sort this out by itself,” Professor Sachs said. “So this is why absolutely one needs a strategy.”

The Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by UN member nations in 2015 with a completion target of 2030, cover a range of objectives and issues beyond traditional environmental concerns. Many others are social welfare measures, including improving health and education, and ending discrimination of various types. They are also highly inter-related, Professor Sachs said, with progress on energy and infrastructure closely related to progress on jobs, incomes, poverty and health.

The expansion of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network to involve US institutions, however, does not include any new money to help them. The idea, instead, is to help the universities to communicate and coordinate on their work and priorities, Professor Sachs said.

And even that communication and coordination has limits. One leader of the US effort, Yale, last month described a database of all its research work that aligns with the UN goals, then acknowledged its confines.

“It does not aim to change or redirect the academic culture at Yale,” Melissa Goodall, associate director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability, said of the effort, “but to highlight pathways for collaboration and, if desirable, connections to a larger context.”

Still, Professor Sachs said, even some meaningful nationwide alignment of work by scientists, universities and their public and private funders could make a big difference.

In the context of sustainable energy, he cited problems such as local opposition to wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts, likening it to the efforts in the 1950s to create the US interstate highway system. In such cases, he said, a realistic nationwide plan for energy networks is necessary to make people realise that both the burdens and benefits will be shared.

“Without a plan,” Professor Sachs said, “everyone would say, ‘Well that's fine, but I don’t want it here.’”

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