Funding your UN SDG Research – How you as a scientist can benefit and contribute to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 

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Funding your UN SDG Research Guest author: Martina Sollai, PhD

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

In today’s ever-changing world, we have all become familiar, to different extents, with concepts such as migratory flow, pandemic, food shortage, water management, ocean conservation, land use, climate change, gender equality, sustainable growth, equal access to public health and education, and clean energy.

In 2015, following extensive negotiations, the United Nations launched a call for urgent action by a global partnership of all acceding countries to confront global challenges like ending poverty and other deprivations, improving health and education, reducing inequality, spurring economic growth, all while tackling the climate crisis and working to preserve our oceans and forests, by 2030.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) are at the heart of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as they “provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” (Fig. 1).  

For each of the 17 identified goals, multiple targets are meant to be achieved by 2030, although there is no end date for some targets. Specific indicators are used to measure the state of advancement toward each target and monitoring tools, such as the SDG Tracker, are available online.

Fig. 1. The 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). From https://en.unesco.org/.

Accelerating the SDGs

Scientific cooperation, technological advancements, and strengthening science-based decision-making are at the core of the UN 2030 Agenda and play a central role in Sustainable Development Goals Targets 17.6 and 17.8.

The JOINT SDG FUND and the INFF-Integrated National Financing Frameworks are UN hubs to showcase high-level joint programs funded at the international and national levels. Researchers can consult them to monitor which SDG-supporting programs have been already financed worldwide.

While public and private platforms, initiatives, and projects contribute to accelerating the SDGs worldwide, they can also serve as a reference of ongoing and prospective actions, for scientists in different disciplines and geographical locations. Specifically, the SDG Acceleration Actions online database is a UN tool that aims to inspire and mobilize actions that promote the implementation of the SDGs. Similarly, the SDG Action platform helps scientists and other relevant stakeholders to keep up with initiatives encouraging cross-sector dialogue and problem-solving to accelerate the transition to sustainability.

Grants and funders: where do they stand?

To examine recent funding for SDG research, we used Dimensions, which provides the most comprehensive set of this data available globally. According to our analysis, in the period 2017-2022 YTD, the total number of grants recorded on Dimensions is 1,366,145; among them, 231,424 regarded the SDG initiative (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Timeline of starting and active grants in the time period 2017-2022 YTD. Data from Digital Science. (2018-) Dimensions [Software] available from https://app.dimensions.ai. Accessed on (27.11.2022), under license agreement.

The top 5 SDGs, meaning the 5 SDGs that receive more funding reflect the urgency to address some of today’s global challenges such as the global SARS-CoV-2 virus-derived COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, the energetic transition, and the consequences of Ukraine-Russia conflict (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Funds per SGD in millions and billions of USD (M / B USD). Data from Digital Science. (2018-) Dimensions [Software] available from https://app.dimensions.ai. Accessed on (27.11.2022), under license agreement.

This translated into academic grants opened in various research areas, including the fields of Engineering, Biomedical and Physical Sciences, Health Sciences, Information and Computing Sciences, and Biological Sciences, among the most funded (Table 1).

Field of researchFunding amounts (billions of USD)
Engineering35.2
Biomedical and physical sciences32.3
Health sciences20.1
Information and computing sciences18.1
Biological sciences13.5
Table 1. Top 5 funded fields of research (B USD), according to the 2020 Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC 2020; data from Digital Science. (2018-) Dimensions [Software] available from https://app.dimensions.ai. Accessed on (27.11.2022), under license agreement)

Geographically scattered, the number of SDG-related grants is particularly prominent in continental Europe, the United Kingdom, China, Brazil, Japan, the United States, and Australia (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Geographical distribution of active SDG grants over the 2017-2022 YTD time period. Data from Digital Science. (2018-) Dimensions [Software] available from https://app.dimensions.ai. Accessed on (27.11.2022), under license agreement.

Funds allocated in SDG-related research increased steadily in the time period 2017-2022 YTD, going from ca. 4 to ca. 27 billions of USD (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Timeline of the aggregated funding amount (Billions of USD) per year over the time period 2017-2022 YTD. Data from Digital Science. (2018-) Dimensions [Software] available from https://app.dimensions.ai. Accessed on (27.11.2022), under license agreement.

Among the top funders of SDG-related research, are the European Commission (EC, EU), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID, USA), the Directorate for Research and Human Resources (NSF EHR, USA), the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO, Japan), and the Research Council of Norway (RCN, Norway).

Fig. 6. Geographical distribution of the aggregated amount of funds (USD) over the 2017-2022 YTD time period. Data from Digital Science. (2018-) Dimensions [Software] available from https://app.dimensions.ai. Accessed on (27.11.2022), under license agreement.

We must act now

After looking at this data, it appears clear that research priorities and funding are generally moving in the right direction to progress the UN SDGs; the funding amounts have grown steadily in the past 5 years.

It is also important to emphasize that much of the funding investments made by research funders around the world, even if not officially labelled as advancing the UN SDGs, nevertheless contribute to the advancement of the UN SDGs.

However, SDG progress tracking states clearly “We are not on track.” Predictably, the geographical distribution of most grants and funding available remains unbalanced, favoring North American and European research organizations. Similarly, the allocation of funds per SDG appears clearly biased when one looks at the dismal data on SDG Goal 5: to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030.

As researchers and as individuals, we can all do more to work together – and faster – to confront these global challenges. Think about your research and the relevant SDGs, prepare grant applications with the SDGs as top priority. We are running out of time to achieve the best global outcomes for 2030. Researchers are at the forefront of the solutions needed to achieve global sustainability.

If you’re interested to search for funding opportunities that promote the United Nation’s global sustainable development goals (SDG), you can use this curated Research Funding List.

Acknowledgment

For an overview of using Dimensions to explore the global landscape of research on SDGs, see Dimension’s report Contextualizing Sustainable Development Research. For more information on global funding data within Dimensions as well as other research activity such as publications, clinical trials, patents, and policy documents, see https://www.dimensions.ai/.

The author would like to thank the Dimensions Support Team for their assistance and constructive feedback.

We, at scientifyRESEARCH, thank Martina Sollai for writing this guest blog.

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