Applying science sustainably

Applying science and technology to problems of development
Improving research and development on problems of development
Ensuring sustainable human development through science and technology
Developing socially responsible technologies
Strengthening scientific basis for sustainable development
Strengthening science for sustainable development

Since the Second World War the products of scientific research and technological innovation have become more and more deeply enmeshed in all aspects of human activity and there have been wide-ranging modifications in the way knowledge is generated and utilized. Unfortunately, however, very little of the power of modern science and technology has been directed at development. Moreover, the science and technology capabilities of developing countries continue to be too limited to deal adequately with the enormous existing problems of development. Only about 4% of world expenditure on research and development and about l4% of the world's supply of scientists and engineers are in developing countries, which contain more than 80% of the world's population. These differences, which have persisted over a long time, constitute a distinguishing feature of the evolving global order. The role that knowledge currently plays in the process of development is so critical that development itself could be redefined in terms of the capacity to generate, acquire, disseminate and utilize knowledge, both modern and traditional. The presence or absence of this capacity constitutes a crucial divide between nations.

In summary, it should be stated that, though scientific and technological progress during the past century has freed much of humanity from dire poverty, the very poorest have not shared in the benefits. Indeed, the globalization of the world economy has broadened even further the gap between the poor and the non-poor. It is evident that wide disparities between countries in their ability to use modern technology and undertake innovative activities have led to an unequal degree of integration into the new global system. Consequently, the benefits of globalization are shared unevenly among nations and within nations, thereby increasing marginalization both domestically and internationally. The deepening economic stagnation in the low-income countries, more specifically the plight of the very poor and women, has given cause for concern to governments and international organizations alike.


This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities.

1. A report to the UN Secretary-General on progress achieved and problems encountered in the application of science and technology for sustainable development covers the progress made in implementing three main Chapters of Agenda 21 dealing with science and technology for sustainable development. Chapter 16, on environmentally sound management of biotechnology, focuses upon the need for (a) increasing the availability of food, feed and renewable raw materials; (b) improving human heath; (c) enhancing protection of the environment; (d) enhancing safety and developing international mechanisms for cooperation; and (e) establishing enabling mechanisms for the development and the environmentally sound application of biotechnology. Chapter 34, dealing with issues related to the transfer of environmentally technology, cooperation and capacity-building, focuses on three programme areas: improving access to and dissemination of information on environmentally sound technologies; capacity building for managing technological change; and promoting technology cooperation and partnerships. Chapter 35, covering issues related to science for sustainable development, addresses them in terms of strengthening the scientific basis for sustainable development; enhancing scientific understanding; improving long-term scientific assessments; and building up scientific capacities in all countries. Some comments from these chapters are presented in the following points.

2. A Roundtable on Technology Transfer, Cooperation and Capacity Building, was held in Vienna, February 1995 by UNIDO, in cooperation with UNEP and DPCSD. The purpose of the Roundtable Meeting was to explore the possibility of establishing joint action programmes and strategies for the building of capacities and promotion of environmentally sound technology (EST) in developing countries, especially with regard to the role of the industrial sector in contributing to the realization of the goals of Agenda 21. The Roundtable defined elements of a work programme on EST in three areas: (a) policy development; the use of economic incentives in national policies; promotion of technologies for cleaner production and products; needs assessment; (b) institutional development and capacity building: EST centres; (c) partnership and cooperation; south-south cooperation; expanding global partnerships; technology intermediaries.

3. Constraints to accessing information on ESTs have included: high direct costs combined with lack of financing; barriers related to the proprietary nature of information systems or technologies; and lack of technical and managerial capacities; and the lack of knowledge on the potential contribution of ESTs to development objectives (resulting in lack of demand). A recognized problem is the weakness of vertical information flows between environmental/cleaner production agencies at one level and industries and non-industrial users at another. The horizontal information flow among different environmental agencies seems to be smoother.

4. The [Cleaner Production Programme] of UNEP emphasizes information exchange to create awareness of the need for cleaner production and, thereby, increase the demand for the transfer of cleaner production technologies. The Cleaner Production Programme has no legally binding international agreement nor any special financial mechanism supporting either national programmes or technology implementation, which makes it difficult to promote technology transfer within the framework of the Programme. The Cleaner Production Information Clearinghouse was thus developed under the Programme with the aim of becoming an effective information dissemination system providing relevant, timely and updated information.

5. The important role of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the transfer of ESTs, especially in developing countries, is increasingly recognized. A study commissioned by UNIDO's Industrial and Technological Information Section (INTIB) concluded that there is a clear indication of a growing demand for environmental information in SMEs in the developing countries, at the same time, a shortage in information supply. The main factors contributing to this information shortfall would include the general tendency that information provided on advanced technology is mostly targeted to the developed and not to the developing countries. Even in cases where information systems target users in developing countries, these are either large corporations, consultants or researchers at universities or research institutes which may have advanced communication capabilities. The use of advanced technologies and information systems for information transfer does not take into account the limited data handling capabilities in the SME sector in developing countries, and therefore restricts their access.

6. The [Seoul Plan of Action concerning Information Exchange about ESTs] adopted at the Workshop on the Promotion of Access to and Dissemination of Information on ESTs suggested the establishment of a 'consultative mechanism' to enhance cooperation and compatibility among existing and planned systems for the exchange of information related to ESTs, particularly those operated by - or with the support of - the UN system and under international conventions. A draft outline for the suggested consultative mechanism proposes implementation in two phases. Major actors in the first phase would be UN agencies and organizations, secretariats of the relevant international conventions, and other selected international organizations such as the OECD and the IEA. In the second phase, the mechanism may be extended to the participation of other actors, such as managers or private sector information systems related to ESTs as well as business and industry associations.

7. Traditional supply-oriented approaches to technical assistance have failed to produce expected results in capacity building. There has been more emphasis on a participatory approach involving all the stakeholders (including end-users, entrepreneurs, researchers, extension service agents, planners and policy-makers at all levels), on reinforced support to the local private sector, on establishing and strengthening linkages of various kinds, and on inter-disciplinary approaches.

8. Lack of adequately trained manpower, including technology transfer managers, subject matter specialists, extension workers and farmers, has been a major bottleneck in effective transfer of improved technologies. The paucity is getting acute as the process of technology generation and transfer is becoming increasingly complex.

9. In promoting rural-based enterprises as the vehicle for the utilization of post-production technologies and as a means of providing livelihood opportunities in rural communities, manpower training is considered an important requirement to equip project managers and cooperation partners with the skills needed to make informed decisions on the transfer, use and dissemination of technologies that are conducive to sustainable development. It also became evident that training seminars and field demonstrations are important avenues to elucidate and persuade technology end-users of the benefits and risks involved in the application of certain technologies.

10. The Commission on Sustainable Development, at its second session in 1994, recognized that assessment of needs for capacity building and institutional development related to ESTs could be useful in enhancing development, deployment and transfer of those technologies. In order to benefit from the experiences gained from those exercises in a broader context, the CSD encouraged developed and developing countries to jointly conduct case studies on needs assessment at the national level. Such case studies are being planned in a number of developing countries.

11. Rapid growth in demand for ESTs, particularly in developing and the newly industrializing countries and countries with economies in transition, opens up new opportunities for EST cooperation and partnerships. Expansion of global operations of major firms, as they set up foreign operations to enter markets, and seek foreign partners to develop new technologies, may also advance the scope for EST cooperation and partnership arrangements.

12. External evaluation of scientific and technological cooperation programmes with developing countries and countries with economies in transition launched by the European Community, have highlighted a number of lessons for future cooperation in research and technological development: (a) the importance of mutuality in the project planning and implementation phase; (b) the need to base scientific cooperation on the priority needs identified in developing countries and economies in transition. Also, that without local/national support, investments in human capital and scientific infrastructure are not sustainable; (c) a clear need to see research priorities in relation to other policy areas such as development cooperation with third countries; (d) greater input from local scientists in developing and Central and East European countries was necessary from project formulation through to management; and (e) the economic and environmental problems of sustainable development required an interdisciplinary approach. Building on local knowledge was vital to make research and its results relevant.

13. Many developing countries lack the necessary scientific manpower and infrastructure to: (a) collect, analyse, interpret and disseminate scientific data and information related to the broad areas of sustainable development as defined in Agenda 21; (b) develop and apply science-based policies, resource management systems and technologies; (c) generate new knowledge through science relevant for sustainable management and policy making, in particular through interdisciplinary research. The gap between industrialized and developing countries, in terms of existing capacities in these areas, is also widening.

14. A critical but often neglected link in making effective use of science for sustainable development concerns communication. Science can have an impact only if it is communicated to various non-specialist user groups in a language and form which can be understood and used. At present there is a serious gap between the producers and users, including policy makers, of scientific information.

15. Since UNCED, two intergovernmental processes have been launched which are specifically dedicated to supporting science for sustainable development in developing countries and to sensitizing governmental decision-makers at the highest possible level in this regard. The first process involves setting up a Commission on Science and Technology for the South (COMSATS) initiated by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. It endorsed the aim of creating twenty centres of excellence in the South as the frontier areas of science related to sustainable development and established the Network of International Centres of Excellence in the South. The second intergovernmental process is the Presidential Forum on the Management of Science and Technology for Development in Africa, initiated by a regional non-governmental scientific organization (Rand Forum). An agreement was reached on holding the periodic sessions of the Presidential Forum as a major endeavour to sensitize the African geo-political geo-economic leadership to the crucial role of science-led development.


The challenge to the international community is how to support this most under-privileged group effectively, particularly women and the rural poor, and achieve sustainable human development. Efforts to meet this challenge imply a commitment to establish links that will provide all human beings, both individually and collectively, with the opportunity to realize their full potential. Above all, this implies a determination to embrace and put in practice a new conception of sustainable human development.

Sustainable human development could provide all individuals with equal opportunities to enlarge their human capabilities to the fullest possible extent and to put those capabilities to the best use in economic, social and environmental fields. However, two aspects should be emphasized: first that sustainable human development is not just for the developing countries but is also applicable to the industrialized nations as well; secondly, although science and technology can contribute a great deal to sustainable human development, they do not offer a ready-made solution to the problem of values that is raised by the clash between tradition and modernity. Therefore, from the perspective of science and technology, sustainable human development has to be considered as an uncertain quest in which the seekers rely heavily on the knowledge and on the innovations that are the product of modern science and technology while also seeking guidance from the wisdom and experience offered by traditional local knowledge systems.

Coordinating science and technology for development
Building ecologically
Measuring sustainability
Researching energy efficiency
Using sustainable technologies
Relating pure research to society
Assessing earth's carrying capacity
Researching sustainable agriculture
Appropriating relevant technologies
Developing environmental technologies
Undertaking human ecological research
Living within earth's carrying capacity
Improving knowledge on ecosystem processes
Establishing codes of practice for science
Developing relative-risk evaluation methods
Producing environmental resource inventories
Developing scientific concepts in management
Developing integrated environmental frameworks
Improving training on sustainable development law
Linking established science with indigenous knowledge
Mobilizing science and technology to meet basic needs
Collecting data on state of ecosystems and human health
Researching water resources for sustainable development
Improving international research on watershed development
Strengthening science and technology information capacity
Establishing sustainable aquaculture development strategies
Improving long-term scientific assessment of the environment
Improving international coordination on mountain development
Using research results to assess sustainable development issues
Strengthening national research to support sustainable development
Strengthening participation of scientists in sustainable development
Identifying research needs and priorities for sustainable development
Establishing international centres for sustainable development research
Applying scientific and technological capacity to conditions of the poor
Ensuring participation of developing countries in international research
Improving long-term environmental policies, technology and risk assessment
Establishing demonstration projects on sustainable development methodology
Conducting pilot studies to link established science with indigenous knowledge
Developing a stronger scientific basis for improving sustainable development policies
Using interdisciplinary teams with local expertise for sustainable development studies
Strengthening interdisciplinary research on environmental degradation and rehabilitation
Expanding public participation in environmental research and in setting long-term societal goals
Assessing cost and benefits of different development policies for human and environmental health
Strengthening research to build demographic factors into local sustainable development programmes
Using transparent, user-friendly risk assessment methodology for setting sustainable development priorities
Expanding national scientific and technological advisory councils and groups to respond to sustainable development needs
Using technology for development
Enhancing science and technology training
Type Classification:
C: Cross-sectoral strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 2: Zero HungerGOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 4: Quality EducationGOAL 5: Gender EqualityGOAL 6: Clean Water and SanitationGOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 14: Life Below WaterGOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal