Promoting knowledge to achieve Sustainable Development Goals

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Principal Librarian for Digital Scholarship at the Rhodes University Library, Debbie Martindale
Principal Librarian for Digital Scholarship at the Rhodes University Library, Debbie Martindale

By Sam van Heerden

The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to create a more peaceful and sustainable world, and university research can play a vital role in achieving them. The Rhodes University Library and Community Engagement division have initiated SDG projects to promote access to this knowledge across society.

Principal Librarian for Digital Scholarship at the Rhodes University Library Debbie Martindale and Rhodes University Community Engagement (RUCE) Director Diana Hornby spoke about these plans at the Open Science Colloquium at The Amazwi South African Museum of Literature last week.

“The vision of Rhodes University is to generate and advance locally-responsive and globally-engaged knowledge that seeks to create a just and sustainable society,” explained Hornby. Creating and promoting scholarship that serves society is central to the Rhodes University ethos, and these recent initiatives aimed at achieving the SDGs embody this spirit.

In 2015, all 193 United Nations member states adopted the SDG Agenda, which “provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” It is made up of 17 goals which range from climate action and poverty elimination to decent work and economic growth.

Rhodes University research supporting a better world

“Our 14 SARChI chairs at Rhodes University really do lend themselves to achieving the goals through their work,” said Martindale, who has been at the forefront of creating a university research website focused on the SDGs.

The digital platform, which started last July and is still under construction, will feature research outputs from students, academics, and research units. These outputs will be organised under SDG themes so that if someone wants to connect with a researcher working in an area related to an SDG, they can easily find them. This can promote greater collaboration and make the scholarship more accessible to academics and the public alike. 

Central to the SDGs is that they all link to each other. The strategy recognises that ending poverty goes hand in hand with improving health and education while tackling climate change and preserving natural habitats. Global issues contain many different and overlapping problems and opportunities, and this has informed the SDG website. “The core principle behind our thinking is a multidisciplinary approach,” said Martindale, “It is not just one research centre working towards one goal.”

She showed the audience the website in its early phase, focusing on SDG 3, which promotes health and well-being. Included under this goal are links to various research collections,  including the work of the Rhodes Biomedical Biotechnology Research Unit (BioBRU) and the SARChI Chair of Biotechnology Innovation and Engagement, Professor Janice Limson. But also under it are links to the research related to the SDG 3 done by the Education Faculty.

“What we have achieved here is the multidisciplinary approach to SDGs. There is SDG 3 research [on various aspects of health and well-being], from science to education. And we think it is very exciting [to have them all in one place],” said Martindale.

Sustainability is an important thread tying the goals together, and partnerships are essential in making these interventions last. “The sustainability of this project will depend on each unit or partnership as they are responsible for updating their research portal,” Martindale explained.

The SDG website has also become a university-wide project, with stakeholders across the library, research centres, and the Rhodes Communications and Advancement Division all playing a part in making the website a reality.

Partnering with communities to achieve SDGs

While academic research is central to achieving the SDGs, Hornby from RUCE reminded attendees that changing the world needs to start from the bottom up. Community engagement was added to the national higher education goals because publicly funded universities are meant to serve the public good. “[But] the communities we worked with kept asking how they can access the research produced at Rhodes University,” said Hornby.

RUCE has always promoted social and economic development and nurtured students to be ethical leaders and citizens. The idea that research should move beyond the university and serve these aims is a natural progression, and the RUCE team began thinking about how they could make this happen.

They considered several overlapping plans, such as the Rhodes University Institutional Development Policy (IDP), the National Development Plan (NDP), and the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). After identifying the common themes, they created their ‘RUCE Strategy Knowledge Wheel’. The three main topics are Sustainability, Collaboration, and Well-being, which are divided into subdivisions.

But their focus is not just on spreading existing research to communities that might need them. They want to collaborate with communities to create the knowledge in the first place. “We aim to promote not only access but the co-creation of knowledge,” said Hornby. This involves working with communities to form research projects and questions, such as considering topics that are important to them. The collaborative approach can help overturn the exploitative and unsustainable way information is often obtained for research.  

Achieving the SDGs should, after all, include those most affected by its aims, which are often local and marginalised communities who are excluded from decision-making. “Our role is closer to the ground,” she explained. “And we hope to help populate the SDG website with knowledge created in partnership with communities.”