Elsevier, the global information analytics company and academic publisher, specialising in science and health, recently published a landmark report to strengthen the understanding of the global efforts in reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), developed in 2015, set an ambitious target to achieve a sustainable and fair future for the globe by 2030.
Marking the 5th anniversary of the SDGs, Elsevier’s report, ‘The Power of Data to Advance the SDGs’ shows that over the last five years, SDG-related publications have reached a staggering 4.1 million articles, presenting both opportunities and challenges for the global research, health, and public policy communities. The report aims to help researchers and policymakers navigate this body of data so that important decisions can be made based on scientific knowledge.
Lesley Thompson, Elsevier’s Director of Academic and Government Strategic Alliance, spoke to Health Europa’s digital editor, Stephanie Price, about the findings of the report.
Advances in the field of health over the last century
The global research community continues to be the backbone of this challenge, with its commitment to finding evidence-based answers for advancing global health and wellbeing, poverty reduction, and life expectancy.
“If you look at the morbidity rates in the UK for example, the most obvious impact of the research on health and wellbeing is that in the last 100 years, life expectancy in the UK has moved from 52 in 1915, to 81 in 2020 – a remarkable improvement in age expectancy,” said Thompson.
“That growth in part is due to medical and healthcare research and the impact that research has had on society. One relevant example for today – just look at the research over the last 100 years in infectious diseases and the development in the deployment of vaccines. This has seen the eradication of smallpox, a disease that used to haunt the world, and now we are witnessing the race for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Our report provides a broad evidence base to make further progress for funders, policymakers, and researchers, so they can choose the focus of their research going forward and hopefully contribute to the advancement of Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Health and Wellbeing.”
The power of research in advancing SDGs
To date, there have been over three million publications related to Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Health and Wellbeing (SDG3). The vast trove of research and data has helped to inform progression toward this SDG; however, Thompson notes that the report highlights gaps in research contributions between high and low-income countries.
Thompson said: “I have worked in science policy for over 30 years and the thing that surprised me was that, when I saw the data that Elsevier has produced on the SDGs, the sheer predominance of SDG3 in the research papers and yet we have not met this goal.
“In our analysis it was very clear that research into healthy lives is not evenly distributed across the globe, only 0.4% of publications come from low-income countries. This might not matter if knowledge is shared across the globe, however, motivations for research will vary from high-income locations to low-income locations, so maybe our data points to further opportunities for collaboration between the global south and the global north in order to address the research questions that will really impact the research for healthy lives in the north and south.
“One of the things that stood out to me in our report was the word cloud associated with SDG3 – for me, it provided much food for thought, but others should reflect on this as well. It did present the health issues of high-income countries – was the focus on health issues for all as we move forward?
“We are now seeing researchers around the world collaborating together because of COVID-19 and I think, as we look forward, finding ways that the global south can contribute on equal terms with more wealthy countries will be a real step forward. How that happens will be up to funders, researchers, and policymakers. However, I think in the UK for instance we have seen some great examples with the Newton Fund, and similar funding opportunities exist in other countries.”
The limitations of data and research
The report highlights the limitations of data and research around the SDGs, demonstrating a correlation between the areas of intensive research, higher levels of public discourse, and the shortcomings of the research that has been conducted to date.
Using the new SciVal matching tool methodology, the report highlights unprecedented research from Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research, which assesses the first 16 SDGs, and reveals a stark absence of sex and gender analysis across all the SDGs research.
In March this year Elsevier published the gender report on ‘The Researcher Journey Through a Gender Lens‘, which looked at the balance between males and females within the research populations of different countries.
“That was really interesting because Brazil, for instance, had a much more balanced research population than the UK,” said Thompson.
“Now why would that be? If you think about the subject of sex and gender in research and particularly investing in SDG3, I would ask the question; when undertaking any research relevant to SDG3 will the results be as valid as possible and will the outcomes be maximised if, as a researcher, you do not take note of the sex and gender in designing your experiments and when developing your research methodology? If you think about the population, 50% are male and 50% female – shouldn’t all healthcare research at least consider in the experimental design whether they need to address gender and sex as part of their experimental protocol.
“There is always a benefit from diverse working environments and research is not different. Having talents of many different backgrounds contributing to advancing research must be important and that is partly why Elsevier since the early 90s has worked very hard to support the gender summits that bring together people to consider the issues of gender in research and how that can be advanced forward.”
The importance of Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Health and Wellbeing
Thompson highlighted the importance of SDG3 in underpinning the other 16 UN Sustainable Development Goals and the impact that COVID-19 has had on advancing collaboration and research that will help advance these goals as we move into the future.
“The World Health Organization made health a fundamental human right 50 years ago and then SDG3 was incorporated into the SDGs five years ago,” she said. “Good health and wellbeing is a human right and yet if you look across the world you see very strong inequalities between the global south and the north, and within countries between rich and poor.
“Research alone can’t level up the health disparities, but it is important that research contributes to levelling the playing field. Good health interlinks and underpins many of the other SDGs and I would strongly contend that you cannot have a sustainable future without having a healthy society and vice versa. This is eloquently put by Dr Githinji Gitahi, the Global CEO of Amref Health Africa, in the report we have just published.
“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in so many elements of life has just been extraordinary, but the emergence of the research community’s attention on COVID-19 across the globe, and the rapid way the research community has responded to this global crisis, has fostered international collaboration and strengthened interdisciplinary research, and has certainly improved academic and corporate collaboration – it has been remarkable.
“There has been a significant shift and I believe this will have long-term impact both on the SDGs and the wellbeing of the world. I hope that the positive impact of the depth and breadth of collaboration and research will move us forward – not just on SDG3, but on many of the other goals. There is one example in Elsevier, where we have seen an unprecedented 130 million downloads of papers on the Elsevier coronavirus resource centre since it was established in March.”
Supporting researchers across the globe
By helping to identify gaps in research and opportunities for action, the Elsevier publication hopes to help researchers and policymakers across the globe to recognise where policy interventions may be required and engage in dialogue about how the SDG goals can be achieved.
“Through this publication, Elsevier hopes that we can engage and facilitate discussions to think about the research questions, outcomes, and the policy interventions that might be required if we are truly to meet the SDG goals by 2030,” said Thompson.
“We hope we have enabled insights through this report – it has certainly given me insights, and I hope it allows others to identify gaps and opportunities for action, and ways of thinking about how we report back the impact on society of all this research. I have always used data with policymakers and I am already using this data with the National Funding Agency, and also with universities to show how they are contributing to the SDGs – something that is not readily available to universities in the UK. Relx, our parent company, has also set up the resource centre with a wealth of freely available data to support the progress of the SDGs, and additionally, we have the Elsevier Foundation that works tirelessly to try and support engagement in research and dialogue between the global south and the global north.
“It would be remiss of me not to point to the opportunities that Elsevier provides for any researcher to publish their work on SDGs and to share their validated research findings with the globe. It is only through sharing knowledge that we will advance our knowledge today and solves the problems facing society for tomorrow, and the SDGs are a really good set of challenges.
“The report that we have produced is of no value at all if it sits on a shelf unread – the value comes from people looking at it, digesting it, and coming back to engage in a dialogue about what was helpful and what wasn’t helpful, and what other things might help advance people’s knowledge and the evidence base for advancing the SDGs into the future – collaboration will be key.”
Read the full report here.