How science, tech and innovation can help beyond the pandemic

International cooperation on the science, technology and innovation frontiers can fast-track sustainable development progress after the COVID-19 crisis, experts say.

The coronavirus pandemic has compelled leaders, policymakers and everyday people to think carefully about what makes healthy and resilient communities.

At the same time, it has prompted a rethink of how to address other pre-pandemic catastrophes, such as climate change, food insecurity and social inequality.

To address these challenges, the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) will examine how to make science and technology work for all, at its inter-sessional panel for 2020-2021, slated for 18 to 22 January.

During the event, experts will examine two key issues. The first focuses on health and how science, technology and innovation can be used to close the gap on SDG3 for health and wellbeing. The second explores the prospects of blockchain for sustainable development.

International collaboration 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, scientists in many countries have largely collaborated under the principle of ‘open science’ – where knowledge, methods, data and evidence are made freely available and accessible to everyone.

Collaborative arrangements of open science, especially the mapping of the virus’s genome, helped in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines being administered in various countries.

“In the same way that the development of the vaccines greatly benefited from scientists collaborating in unity for a common cause, governments must also unite in solidarity to ensure that everyone, especially the poorest, gain access to the vaccines,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics.

Ms. Sirimanne, who also heads the CSTD secretariat, said international collaboration in scientific research can play a critical role in improving health, equity and sustainable development.

She said the need for countries to come together and share their experiences and lessons learned is no less critical in dealing with emerging issues in the digital age.

“Just as the pandemic sees no borders, digital technologies also transcend national jurisdictions,” she added, emphasizing the importance of the CSTD sessions in helping share lessons in scientific approaches and policy thinking.

The UN and the international community have an important role in shaping global norms and frameworks on frontier technologies.

“It’s important for the international community to better understand the risk-reward tradeoffs,” Ms. Sirimanne said, whether this is for the implementation of blockchain technology in consumer services, or using artificial intelligence, gene editing, and other new and emerging innovations in healthcare.

Avoiding unintended consequences

Digital technologies in health can generate several unplanned risks, with implications for the resilience of social, cultural and political institutions.

These need to be tempered and controlled for as far as possible, according to experts.

For example, “infodemics”, the overabundance of inaccurate health information online, can make it difficult to access trustworthy and reliable guidance on the COVID-19 pandemic.

An area where there is increasing risk is in digital technologies such as blockchain. A widely known application of blockchain technology is cryptocurrency – Bitcoin being the most prominent.

The value of Bitcoin reached an all-time high, by topping the $40,000 mark, during the first week of 2021, only to plummet by more than 20% the following week.

While cryptocurrency has remarkable potential to ensure financial inclusion for marginalized people, there is a growing need to prevent systemic risk from speculative activities that create asset bubbles.

For example, if investors accumulate debt to purchase large sums of cryptocurrency using fiat money (i.e. the US dollar or euro), and there is a devaluation in the exchange rate – as is currently evident – this could lead to payment defaults in the respective fiat currency, potentially leading to personal financial ruin.

“Yet the absence of an international effort for regulating blockchain in financial markets is a serious concern, given the transnational nature of both global finance and digital technologies,” Ms. Sirimanne said. “We need to leverage benefits, but guard against negative impacts.”

The CSTD offers member States a platform to explore ways of strengthening the science-policy interface at the national and global levels and better coordinate STI-focused international cooperation in the spirit of multilateralism.

The CSTD inter-sessional panel will also review progress made in the implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) at the regional and international levels.

These deliberations by experts will then be taken up at the ministerial level during the annual session of the CSTD, scheduled for 17 to 21 May 2021.

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