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The role of science in reaching development goals

The MDG for eradicating poverty and hunger has been helped through new high-yielding varieties of rice (right) that can withstand drought in Africa. Reuters/Erik de Castro

The science community must unite to ensure that they complete the unfinished business around the Millennium Development Goals.

There have been pockets of progress since 2000 when the goals were introduced to address food security and reduce maternal and infant mortality as some of the global challenges around poverty.

As the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals draws nearer, a new agenda is on the cards to finish the job. The United Nations has now urged member countries to come up with a plan for the work to continue after it reaches its deadline at the end of December 2015 for the list of 17 proposed sustainable development goals.

What the world set out to achieve

There were eight goals that needed to be achieved. Driven by the United Nations, governments around the world were given targets around the goals. This is what was achieved:

Eradicate extreme poverty The number of people living under the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day declined from 1.8 to 1.4 billion between 1990 and 2005.

Achieve universal primary education Roughly 69 million school-age children are not in school, down considerably from 106 million in 1999.

Promote gender equality and empower women The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) Girls’ Education Initiative developed legal tools to reduce gender-based violence in schools.

Reduce child mortality Between 1990 and 2008, child mortality in developing countries dropped from 100 to 72 deaths per 1000 live births.

Improve maternal health South African scientists have led the push to bring down number of deaths in pregnancy.

Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases The number of new HIV infections fell steadily from 3.5 million in 1996 to 2.7 million in 2010.

Ensure environmental sustainability Since 1990, 1.7 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water.

Develop a global partnership for development Debt burdens have eased for developing countries and now dropped below the historical levels. In May 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the World Health Organisation asked pharmaceutical companies to give 10% of their vaccine production to poor countries.

Extreme poverty has been cut by half but science is expected to play a greater role in future development efforts. United Nations

How science has helped so far

Science has made major contributions.

For example, the goal set for eradicating poverty and hunger has been helped through new high-yielding varieties of rice that can withstand drought in Africa and flooding in Asia. In addition, this genetically modified golden rice, rich in beta-carotene, can prevent blindness.

Science has also helping African farmers, who lose as much as half of what they produce to pest infections, through new technologies for better biological pest control.

In South Africa, science has played its part too. One area of progress is in reducing childbirth mortality, thanks to the discovery of magnesium sulphate given to mothers immediately after birth drastically reducing deaths.

Collaboration is focus for the future

The skills pool and international partnerships in science, technology and innovation are being harnessed to help achieve the post-2015 development agenda. But collaboration is key.

An area of agreement in various international and regional talks on developing a post-2015 agenda is the need to form stronger partnerships and co-operation between scientists.

The Addis Accord Zero Draft Outcome is expected to provide a future framework, which commits governments to boost international collaboration in scientific research aimed at meeting the needs of developing nations.

Past collaboration between scientists has produced exceptional outcomes across the globe. An innovation like the internet was developed through global partnerships at the European Organisation of Nuclear Research (CERN). The web has proved a powerful tool in tackling development challenges.

Investments in large projects to develop global science research structures like the Large Hadron Collidor and Square Kilometre Array can be uniquely productive in raising the profile and money for science technology innovation.

Another technology produced as result of scientific collaboration is the grid, which harnesses the power of computers around the world to process the vast amount of data collected by scientists in their experiments. It is a type of virtual supercomputer.

South African scientists have been urged to work together, taking their cue from the country’s National Development Plan (vision 2030) which spells out the key role of science, technology and innovation in meeting development goals. The plan hopes that the science community can help end poverty and also create jobs in South Africa and on the continent.

While there is a long way to go, science is already playing its part towards creating a better world by providing leadership, an enabling environment and resources for sustainable development. It will be even more successful if collaboration becomes the byword of scientists.

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