printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Improving the Conversation Between Science and Policy: Scope and Methodology of the Global Sustainable Development Report

E. William Colglazier, Ph.D.
Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary 
Panel at the High-Level Political Forum, United Nations
New York City
July 1, 2014



I want to thank the organizers of the meeting for inviting me and for hosting this interesting session on improving the conversation between science and policy for the purposes of sustainable development.

This topic has been identified as long standing goal for many in the scientific and policy communities. As a personal aside, I have always felt that the Bruntland Report could have signaled the significant role of science and technology by saying sustainable development “meets the needs of the present while expanding” -- rather than saying “without compromising” -- “the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, our responsibility to future generations in my view includes expanding human knowledge and technological possibilities – creating knowledge-based societies –so that those who succeed us can be better equipped to achieve their own goals.

Prior to serving as the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, I was Executive Officer at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and its operating arm, the National Research Council. As part of the job of serving as science adviser to the nation, the Academy (with the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine) produces many reports designed to bring objective scientific information to bear on policy problems. While the U.S. Government may not always follow or agree with the advice, it is always willing to listen, and many reports have significant influence on policy.

Two notable publications relevant in this forum are:

  • Our Common Journey, a 1999 report from the National Research Council. We will hear from my friend Bob Kates, the co-chair of this report, this afternoon in a side event discussing the prototype report.
  • And a 2002 report Knowledge and Diplomacy: Science Advice in the United Nations System highlighted the challenge of achieving both scientific credibility and influence in the multilateral political decision-making process. That report made a series of interesting recommendations for the UN to consider.


Efforts in the United States Government to improve the conversation between policy and science are many:

  • Nongovernmental scientific institutions, such as the Academies, are encouraged (and often financed through grants and contracts) to provide independent, objective scientific advice free from politics and special interests and made available to the public as well as to the sponsoring government agency.
  • Scientists are encouraged to participate in policy processes by serving on governmental advisory committees and in government in both science and policy positions, including through various mechanisms including science and technology policy fellowships that enable scientists to experience working in government.
  • Assessment of objective data and evidence are viewed as key aspects of the governmental decision-making process.
  • Science, technology, and innovation – including research and development - are seen as important tools for achieving national and global goals, and data provided by science is seen as necessary to measure impact and to drive improvements in programs.
  • Data from U.S. Government-funded research, as well as data produced by the U.S. Government, is made available to the greatest extent possible to the general public, including to the scientific community throughout the world.


As world leadership focuses on a future set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we see science and data as key to informing their negotiation and implementation and informing the choice of appropriate targets and indicators, and for measuring progress and making progress on SDGs.

Science, technology and innovation will become essential contributors for helping nations to achieve every one of the SDGs in the post-2015 development agenda. Therefore, it is critical that we focus on creating an innovative capacity in every country with high absorptive capacity for assimilating and applying new information, knowledge, and technologies. In this regard, the ongoing dialogue on how to improve the conversation between science and policy takes on new import.


We commend the Secretariat for a great deal of valuable work pulling together a wealth of information and insights, which is a real resource. This initial effort generated a truly impressive compilation and synthesis of information and ideas.

It is very interesting to see the breadth of scientific work in areas relevant to sustainable development and reflect on where the world stands in terms of understanding interrelated economic, environmental, and social systems.

The crowd-sourcing approach for gathering ideas and information is shown in the prototype report to be a useful model for exploring the information available on such a large topic. It certainly provides venues for new actors, information from different sources, disciplines, and research communities across the world to be engaged.

Crowd-sourcing information and various types of expert review may also be a useful way for the UN to keep up with emerging issues and cutting-edge research in the future.

Observation: The world is truly awash in data and information – much of it produced by scientists and academics. The transparency and use of quality data will be crucial for achieving progress towards the post-2015 development agenda and future SDGs.


The scope of what could be included in a Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) is huge and could quickly become overwhelming. A key challenge in crafting a report of real value – something new and strategic that decision-makers will actually read – is to focus on delivering information and insights highly relevant to making progress on the issues they are grappling with and to raise important questions on issues that they have not yet dealt with. It will need to be written in a clear and compelling way and viewed as objective and of the highest quality scientifically.

A key question is the scope or the report. The GSDR could include a compendium of new data and assessment of the progress made in achieving SDGs that are part of the post-2015 development agenda. Alternatively a monitoring report could accomplish that task and leave the GSDR to deal with the highest-level issues of most relevance to policy makers. So it remains to be determined to what extent the GSDR will be a broad report on the status of Sustainable Development, the agreement reached in Rio in 2012; a narrower progress monitoring report on SDGs and their targets; a report focused primarily on special topics and high level issues; or some combination.

In strengthening the conversation between science and policy, it will be important to determine the scope of scientific and technical issues that will be useful to include in the GSDR as sustainable development covers so many significant scientific and technological dimensions. Defining that scope will require a:

  • Well-crafted statement of task that focuses on the most relevant science and technology
  • Process of expert scientific review to ensure quality and objectivity
  • Eye to avoiding duplication of other reports
  • Synthesizing and highlighting new information and data; important under-studied topics; recent relevant research and assessments; new evidence supporting successful programs and approaches; scientific and technical capacity-building needs; and emerging issues
  • Clear understanding of the type of scientific information that may be most useful to enable countries to reevaluate and strengthen their approaches for achieving sustainable development.

In order to determine the most effective focus of the GSDR and its updates, it could be very helpful, including for domestic capacity building, for countries to solicit input from their own scientific communities and to produce national sustainable development reports, perhaps on a cycle that makes a number of national sustainable development reports available at least a year in advance of the next edition of the UN’s GSDR.

To be taken seriously by the policy community and the scientific community, any future GSDR must ensure balanced inputs and accessible data, for a well-considered and non-biased product.

  • A wide range of experts and sources should be included, particularly those outside the “usual suspects” of organizations or regional players.
  • Participation of diverse disciplines, perspectives, and institutions will help provide this balance.
  • This includes social science, as understanding how institutions and societies adapt and respond to change is incredibly important for sustainable development.

A peer-reviewed product is essential for credibility. This may include utilizing evolving models of peer review (e.g., crowd-sourcing the peer review) and the UN Secretary General’s new scientific advisory committee.

In addition, a well-respected, independent scientific institution could be tasked to review the process and near-final product and produce its assessment regarding the scientific quality of the draft GSDR in a public document.

  • The InterAcademy Council, an organization of the world’s science academies, comes to mind as one potential organization as it conducted a review at the request of the UN Secretary General of the processes and procedures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Finally, any future GSDRs will need a concise and policy-relevant summary document for policy makers. More detail and access to underlying studies and data can be provided in various formats for those who want and need it.


Science, technology, and innovation will be integral to achieving the promise of Rio +20.

Sustainable development relies on a robust science-driven economy that will benefit all sectors. With the recognition that data serve as a fuel for entrepreneurship, innovation, scientific discovery, and economic growth, the U.S. Government is embarking on an ambitious plan to make more government-held data more open and accessible to the public.

We urge judicious use of limited resources, and urge organizers to consider how to target and streamline information for any future GSDR so that it aligns with the future development agenda and the needs of policymakers.

Ultimately, we owe it to future generations to make policy decisions today that are informed by high quality scientific data, evidence, and understanding. We must stress the need for accurate representation of scientific limits and uncertainties, while recognizing that policy decisions will need to be made even with some uncertainties in scientific understanding.

We will follow with great interest the next steps toward the Global Sustainable Development Report.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.