Articles Now what? Using Evidence to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Now what? Using Evidence to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Key Messages

  • The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their targets represent global consensus on where we need to be by 2030
  • Knowing the desired outcomes is only half the story – we also need to know what works to achieve these
  • Social Systems Evidence (SSE) indexes best-available evidence from research and policy reports against the SDGs as well as other key characteristics such as government program and service areas and geographical regions
  • Searching within SSE is far more efficient than open internet searching, because the work of sifting through databases and websites to find the evidence most relevant to achieving the SDGs has been done, and searches are continually being updated 
  • SSE is already being used to connect evidence, citizen values and stakeholder insights to those charged with addressing the SDGs through the 11-country Partners for Evidence-driven Rapid Learning in Social Systems (PERLSS) initiative
  • SSE is free to access anywhere in the world; the SSE teams in Canada and Australia also conduct rapid reviews and other policy guidance activities for government and other organisations  

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their accompanying 169 targets, ratified by the United Nations in September 2015, are a comprehensive agenda for global action between now and 2030. 

Everyone in the world can make a contribution to achieving the SDGs. Sustainable behaviours may be driven by the motivations and beliefs of individuals, but changing behaviours and systems across populations requires political leadership to drive policies and interventions that aim to meet the SDGs. 

Over the last 10 – 15 years, the importance of using best available research evidence to underpin public policy has been increasingly recognised. Nobody has more succinctly summarised this than the late Lee Jong-Wook, WHO Director General from 2003 – 2006: 

So where do we find knowledge? The SDGs are a powerful, evidence-based statement of the desired outcomes. But to achieve these, action-oriented leaders will need to consider which interventions can get us there. Specifically, they will need evidence about what could work to address SDGs or SDG targets; how proposed options could be governed, financed and delivered; and how to implement these solutions. 

Time-strapped public servants charged with finding this information frequently turn to open internet searching for answers. Given the importance of designing and implementing effective policy, this is a huge risk. An open internet search is an (indirect) portal to over 60 million scientific studies, with over 5,000 being added daily. These are of highly variable quality and relevance to the challenges faced by policymakers and public servants. The chances of finding credible, useful evidence about what works to achieve the SDGs are therefore miniscule. (And FYI, the “I’m feeling lucky” button will decrease your odds even further). 

Social Systems Evidence aims to be the biggest centralised database of research reviews, economic evaluations and policy briefs pertaining to the SDGs. In addition to mapping evidence to the SDGs, all records are indexed according to government program and service areas, geographical regions and other key characteristics. This enables policymakers and other change leaders to rapidly access evidence relevant to their area of interest and setting. 

SSE addresses the problem of open internet searching in two ways: 

  1. Better evidence. SSE focuses only on reviews and review-based reports, which consolidate knowledge from multiple research studies, and are therefore the most reliable source of research for developing policy and practice initiatives. Systematic reviews are quality-appraised and their source studies are linked for easy access. 
  2. Less volume: The number of review-level studies and reports in the world is in the 10s of thousands, rather than the 10s of millions.  

Because all the work of searching, selecting and indexing evidence against government policy, geographic and other taxonomies is done, users can access higher-credibility and more relevant knowledge in the same time taken to undertake an open internet search. 

SSE can be searched in multiple ways. Policymakers can search according to a government sector or program area; a search can begin through an SDG outcome; or ideally, your own search terms can be filtered against these and other criteria:

Access to user-friendly summaries, scientific abstracts, and (where available) links to the full-text version of all evidence contained on SSE is free. The SSE team also delivers services to governments and policymakers including reviews of ‘what works’ to address SDG and other government challenges and policy dialogues.

SSE is an initiative of McMaster University, Canada (McMaster Health Forum) and Monash University, Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute). It contains over 2600 records, with content covering all SDGs and influential global reports being progressively added over the remainder of 2019 – for example their July update lists over 150 newly-indexed systematic reviews. 

The platform is already being used to inform policy and practice. McMaster University’s Partners in Partners for Evidence-driven Rapid Learning in Social Systems (PERLSS) initiative is bringing together 11 countries from China to Africa and Latin America to connect evidence, citizen values and stakeholder insights to those charged with addressing the SDGs.  

With just over a decade to achieve the SDGs, information repositories such as SSE are a key input into addressing this ambitious global agenda. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.