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Addressing Challenges in Global Research: A View from KIT

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What is needed from science to reach the 17 Sustainable Development Goals?

In 2015 the United Nations agreed upon the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, of which the 17 SDGs are at its heart. The deadline is 2030,  only 7 years from now. In the broadest sense, the 2030 Agenda aims at the eradication of poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty. It is at once the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, now and in the future.

The world is not going to reach the SDGs without science. That is why the Dutch Research Council NWO, a major funder of scientific research in the Netherlands, and its branch for inclusive Global Development WOTRO, decided to contribute their share by funding nine research projects. All nine had the objective to advance the achievement of one or more SDG(s). Per project, NWO/WOTRO funded 50% and the university contributed the other 50% of the research budget. The granted projects were quite diverse; ranging from enhancing water, food and energy consumption in the Lower Zambezi via food system transformation pathways in Tanzania and Vietnam to a crowdsourcing app for responsible production in Africa, and a sustainable MRI system to diagnose hydrocephalus in Uganda.

30 January 2023, NWO/WOTRO organised a symposium at KIT Royal Topical Institute to present and discuss the nine completed six year-long research projects. What is their role in achieving the SDGs?

Themes

The conference was organised around four cross-cutting themes. The first was coherence & alignment. Innovative interventions may have a positive effect on one SDG but may have a negative, albeit unintended, effect on another. These negative trade-offs should be minimised as much as possible. On the other hand, an intervention may have a positive effect on one SDG and also on another. This effect is called synergy and is something to strive for.

To acknowledge and act upon synergies and trade-offs requires knowledge in all three dimensions – economic, social, environmental – of sustainable global development. NWO/WOTRO mentioned in the programme text of the symposium that decision makers in low and middle income countries (LMIC) struggle to comply with the different SDGs dimensions. They are confronted with a variety of assessment frameworks, guidelines and benchmarks developed by international donors, national and local governments or companies that should shape their practices and assess the sustainability of their practices.

The second theme was on scalability and sustainability. Since SDG is a global agenda we should consider how to upscale successful innovations, interventions and approaches to other regions and/or sectors.

Impact and ownership made up the third theme. Output of research should be accessible, affordable and applicable for practitioners and academics in LMICs. Furthermore, engagement of stakeholders should ideally be a goal from the beginning of the research until the end From the drawing of the design of the research until the dissemination and communication of results.

The fourth cross-cutting theme was about fairness in the field. Equity among researchers, and between researchers, their partners and stakeholders is crucial for knowledge production and sharing. In academia there is growing attention for fairness in all phases of the research process, from formulating the research questions to sharing and implementing findings.

“In the first place it’s amazing that there is a special research program for the SDGs”, says Lindy van Vliet, Head of Knowledge at KIT and moderator of this symposium, ”the ambition of the research teams was high”. She thinks that quite a few of these innovations have yielded more useful knowledge and it is great that through the program many young scientists in LMIC got the possibility to obtain a PhD. However, what will happen with these innovations in the long run is less clear. A solid long term vision of how these research projects can contribute to reaching the SDGs was less well developed.

Van Vliet remarked that the discussions on synergies and upscaling were rich but that the SDG adage Leave No One Behind was almost left unnoticed. “During the presentations almost no attention was given to the question how inclusive these innovations would appear. How would they play out for those groups who are most excluded in society, such as(young)women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people? A missed chance”, she concluded. 

Lessons Learned

One of the lessons learned and broadly shared among the audience was that to see the interaction between SDGs, whether positive or negative, you need a multidisciplinary team of researchers. People with different backgrounds will see different things. You need a social scientist to see the social consequences of, for instance, an agricultural innovation. You need a gender specialist to assess the impact on gender relations of a new energy project. “Working in multidisciplinary teams is something we have learned at KIT and are trying to achieve through more and equal partnerships”, says Van Vliet.

During the symposium, the difference came to the fore between doing more fundamental research – just research for research – and applied research. KIT has made its choice and can therefore be much more outspoken. Van Vliet says: “If you want to do applied research, and you want to link it to policy and practice, you have to raise your voice on the evidence that you find.” It matters what happens with the results. Van Vliet noted that some African researchers participating in the symposium went even further. “They were strongly stressing to involve the right stakeholders from the very start because only then research will change anything in their societies.”

Sandra Alba presenting

This touches upon the aspect of fairness. Involving stakeholders from the beginning of the research was hardly discussed at the symposium according to van Vliet. “For inclusive ways of working, with equity at its core, you have to involve local stakeholders, including the people under study, as much as possible. This means co-creation, in the design of the research but also in the implementation of the research outcomes.”

Sandra Alba, senior epidemiologist at KIT, provided a striking example of this shift in research practice in her presentation on fairness in health research. She sketched the historical development of doing “good” scientific research. It proceeded from research integrity to research ethics towards the latest trend which centers around fairness of research. This last step is essentially about redressing power imbalances in global health research to maximise the positive impact, both on local researchers and on local communities. This fairness principle falls squarely within the “decolonisation of knowledge” debate that goes around in academia and beyond.

The NWO/WOTRO symposium inspired KIT to further adopt this fairness principle in its applied research.

More about the symposium Tackling Global Challenges’ through Use-Inspired Research: https://www.nwo.nl/sites/nwo/files/media-files/programme_final_symposium_sdg_joint_research_initiative.pdfAbout fair research in Global Health: https://www.kit.nl/only-fair-research-is-good-research/