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Experts grapple over trust and translation at Polson Institute Symposium

Cornell’s Polson Institute for Global Development held a symposium May 11 exploring how science and policy intersect in driving global sustainable development. Experts like Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, professor and chair of the Department of Development Sociology, addressed the commitments of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Photo by Robert Hazen 

Building the public’s trust in science, improving how it is communicated, agreeing on what constitutes evidence and whose voices are heard in the scientific process were among the topics addressed in a symposium held May 11 at Cornell University focused on the future of development.

Many of the participants, including Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, professor and chair of the Department of Development Sociology, are in the process of producing a first evaluation report of the Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) and the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development; the ground breaking framework developed by the United Nations and 193 member states in 2015 to guide countries towards seventeen social, economic, and environmental objectives.

Jenny Goldstein, assistant professor of development sociology, left, addresses a question during a panel discussion. At right is Ammad Bahalim of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Photo by Robert Hazen.

How to use evidence effectively to measure progress towards the SDGs are contested, and the symposium provided an opportunity for Cornell to participate in the conversation. Over six sessions, the inaugural Cornell University Polson Institute “Future of Development” symposium enabled development practitioners and academics from backgrounds in areas like health, policy, politics, and ecology to debate how evidence is produced. “The idea behind the symposium, the first in a series, is to capitalize on opportunities to reach across divides, real or imagined, to enlarge the dimensions of conversations,” said Lori Leonard, director of the Polson Institute and professor of development sociology.

Panelists and moderators brought a wealth of expertise and a diversity of perspectives from organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID and UNESCO.

Shantanu Mukherjee, chief of the policy and analysis branch of the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, opened the event with a keynote describing how far the global community has come in translating science into policy — from the global effort to eliminate smallpox in the early 20th century, to the consensus-driven drafting of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs, as a necessary but not sufficient condition for actualizing sustainable development, advocate for bridge building across the highly differentiated areas that compose the seventeen goals, from eliminating poverty to ecological conservation. Creating a robust basis for sustainable development is challenging, but as Mukherkee outlined, often complicated by the need to translate science into context-dependent policy arenas.

Shantanu Mukherjee, chief of the policy and analysis branch of the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, gives the keynote address. Photo by Patrick Shanahan.

As many panelists said, the interaction between science and policy affects many stakeholders, including communities and individuals. According to Sarah Zoubek, associate director of Duke University’s World Food Policy Center, successfully translating science to the public requires trust. One effective method of spanning science, policy, and people uses participatory mapping processes, as illustrated by Tapan Parikh, professor in the Department of Information Science. In projects in Richmond and Oakland, California, Parkih’s research work helped empower communities living in adverse circumstances to have their voice heard through getting involved in the production of data that policy makers can use.

Many of the panels identified the ‘”bandwidth” limits of policy makers that challenge the translation of science into policy. Inundated with information and requests, researchers are competing for the attention of regulators and politicians. Nicole Bella of UNESCO provided insight into the processes that her organization, which are built around: identifying the characteristics of specific audiences of policy makers, varying the outputs of research to fit their needs, and training researchers to write in plain language for general audiences. Overcoming barriers of communication were one of many strategies debated at the symposium in the context of the science-policy interface and sustainable development goals.

Panelists discuss how science and policy intersect in driving global sustainable development at a symposium organized by the Polson Institute. Photo by Robert Hazen.