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Scientific Review of the SDGs

In February 2015, the Council released "Review of Targets for the Sustainable Development Goals: The Science Perspective", the first ever scientific review of the 169 targets that are intended to operationalize the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The assessment, which was released in partnership with ISSC, represents the work of over 40 leading researchers covering a range of fields across the natural and social sciences.

The authors find that the SDGs offer a "major improvement" over their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, of the 169 targets beneath the 17 draft goals, just 29% are well defined and based on the latest scientific evidence, while 54% need more work and 17% are weak or non-essential.

Many of the targets suffer from a lack of integration, some repetition and rely too much on vague, qualitative language rather than hard, measurable, time-bound, quantitative targets, the report finds.

Authors are also concerned the goals are presented in ‘silos.’ The goals address challenges such as climate, food security and health in isolation from one another. Without interlinking there is a danger of conflict between different goals, most notably trade-offs between overcoming poverty and moving towards sustainability. Action to meet one target could have unintended consequences on others if they are pursued separately.

Finally, the report highlights the need for an ‘end-goal’ to provide a big picture vision for the SDGs. “The ‘ultimate end’ of the SDGs in combination is not clear, nor is how the proposed goals and targets would contribute to achieve that ultimate end,” write the authors. They recommend that this meta-goal be “a prosperous, high quality of life that is equitably shared and sustained.”

The report was extensively covered in international media both immediately following its release and again on the occasion of the adoption of the SDGs in September 2015. Articles appeared in the Financial Times, Fox News, New Scientist, Science (paywall), SciDevNet, Reuters AlertNet and the World Economic Forum blog.

You can download the SDGs Review from our Publications section.

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