Higher education must drive efforts to promote greater working across disciplines and sectors in order to generate the knowledge needed for meeting the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development (Global Goals) by 2030. This is what IDS Director, Professor Melissa Leach told senior higher education and research experts from worldwide universities, government departments including the UK Department for International Development and UN agencies at the Wilton Park and Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) event, Higher Education: global engagement to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals 2030.
Professor Leach said:
“The world has set down an ambitious framework for a fairer and more sustainable world in the Global Goals. If higher education and academia is to help meet this challenge head on, we must reach out beyond the traditional divides of disciplines, departments, sectors and borders and work together to generate knowledge that is informed by lived realities and that can respond to the unprecedented environmental, social and political disruptions of our era.
“Continued commitments from governments to invest in national and global research infrastructures are essential.”
Professor Leach also emphasised the importance of higher education and those working elsewhere to recognise and address the Global Goals as a package, with goals closely interlinked and mutually dependent. Moreover, to keep in mind the five cross cutting principles that underpin the goals – People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnerships – as well as their central ambition to leave no-one behind.
Investing in research to tackle global societal challenges
Professor Leach argued that recognising the connections between the goals must inform action to make the fundamental changes to social, economic and political structures and systems needed to accelerate progress towards 2030. The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report identifies the need for transformations in which groups of goals are viewed together. Jeffrey Sachs and others have pointed to six key transformations. The first of these refers to education, gender and inequality and underlines the importance of investment in higher education as well as research and development in all countries in order to foster much-needed innovation and skills, and to reduce inequalities. As research at IDS and the University of Sussex has argued, such transformations are always political; a politics of transformation for the SDGs must involve fostering positive interactions between citizens, states, businesses and knowledge-holders in progressive directions, but also challenging the power relations that act against these.
Investing in research ecosystems nationally and globally and ensuring they have the capacity to undertake challenge-led research that cuts across disciplines and sectors should be a priority for governments and multilateral institutions across the world. This is particularly important in countries where research infrastructure is weak, but the need for contextually grounded evidence – for example, on how climate change is affecting populations and they in turn are responding it – is high.
For too long, knowledge hierarchies – who produces knowledge, whose knowledge counts – have limited understanding and solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Strengthening research capacity and promoting equitable and sustainable partnerships across country borders, academic disciplines and sectors is imperative to meeting the Global Goals.
Building global leadership for delivering against the Global Goals
Professor Leach also highlighted the critical role that undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD teaching and research programmes play in building leadership for knowledge and action on addressing the global challenges of our time and responding to the unprecedent social, political and environmental disruptions of our era.
She also argued that the higher education sector must seek to engage with local communities stimulating the public imagination around the role research and evidence can play in building a fairer and more sustainable world, and how they can interact with research and policy processes to shape this future.