Review of Targets for the Sustainable Development Goals: The Science Perspective (2015)

Partnerships for the Goals

The SDGs offer a "major improvement" over their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, this report by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC) finds that 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.

The assessment of the targets – which were intended to operationalise the 17 goals set to be approved by governments later in 2015 – was the first of its kind to be carried out by the scientific community, and represents the work of over 40 leading researchers covering a range of fields across the natural and social sciences.

However, the report found the targets suffered from a lack of integration, some repetition and relied too much on vague, qualitative language rather than hard, measurable, time-bound, quantitative targets. Authors were also concerned the goals were presented in ‘silos.’ The goals addressed 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 highlighted 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,” wrote the authors. They recommended that this meta-goal could be “a prosperous, high quality of life that is equitably shared and sustained.”