Development goals and multidisciplinarity

The buzz around Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — was hard to miss last June and in the months leading up to it. Hosted in Rio de Janeiro, just like the Earth Summit 20 years earlier, the conference gave people and groups who care about life on this planet high hopes for progress on a whole array of development and sustainability issues, from energy to food to disaster risk.

Just as inescapable was the collective feeling of disappointment, after the conference, at the failure to achieve binding commitments or firm plans towards a ‘sustainable future’.

Instead, what Rio+20 did was to set the global community on a path to a new destination: the post-2015 development agenda, and the next incarnation of global Sustainable Development Goals (to replace the Millennium Development Goals).

Those set to lead on this journey appear to be committed to shaping development goals around three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental. My recent editorial reflects on what this means for the research agenda and multidisciplinarity in particular, putting across the point that global goals are an opportunity to maximise the impact of research on the bottom line of improving lives in poor countries.

Single-issue campaigns were everywhere in the run-up to Rio+20. And depending on where you look, arguments for the way forward (or what holds back progress) will centre on either technology or the power of politics and the social environment. Should we be thinking in dichotomies and asking which is the most important? My answer is no. We need leadership to bring different types of knowledge together effectively, and to learn the rules for bringing them together as intrinsically different systems. On the other hand, this can easily become an academic exercise, so it needs to be guided by practical applications for tangible impact.