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India’s G20 Presidency: Charting the course of international science policy

Suryesh K Namdeo

In this opinion article, Suryesh K Namdeo, DST- Centre for Policy Research (DST-CPR), IISc, Bengaluru, discusses the expansion of the focus of Group of Twenty (G20) to address global challenges like climate change and public health, providing India with an opportunity to shape international science and technology (S&T) policies.

India's G20 Presidency: Charting the course of international science policy. Picture Credits: Compiled from Freepik by Anuja Vartak.
India's G20 Presidency: Charting the course of international science policy. Picture Credits: Compiled from Freepik by Anuja Vartak. 

The Group of Twenty (G20), an international forum representing the majority of the world’s economy and population, has expanded its focus beyond financial stability to global challenges like climate change and public health. For India, the G20 provides a platform to engage with major economies to shape international rules, norms, and standards. With its current G20 presidency, India has a pivotal opportunity to shape global science and technology (S&T) policies, underlining G20’s significant role in its international strategy. 

The emphasis on S&T policy dialogues cannot be understated, as G20 countries produce approximately 85% of global scientific knowledge. The G20’s ability to foster international scientific cooperation and set international standards for data sharing, research ethics, and scientific publishing may indeed hold the key to overcoming global challenges.

G20 working groups: Deliberating science in health, agriculture, and beyond

Several G20 working groups such as health, agriculture, disaster risk reduction, energy transition, and environment and climate sustainability have thematic focus areas that involve promoting scientific research and deploying relevant technologies. For instance, the 100th G20 meeting was the Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists (MACS) organised in Varanasi. This meeting discussed a wide range of scientific issues, including food fortification, transboundary pests and diseases, and climate-resilient agriculture. MACS also launched the Millets And OtHer Ancient GRains International ReSearcH Initiative (MAHARISHI) with voluntary membership from G20 countries. The goal of MAHARISHI is to facilitate research collaborations on climate-resilient and nutritious grains, supplementing the ongoing efforts under the International Year of Millets (IYoM) program initiated by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The MAHARISHI secretariat will be based at the Indian Institute of Millets Research, Hyderabad, and will serve as a hub to connect researchers, exchange data, conduct capacity-building activities, and facilitate knowledge transfer.

Similarly, the Health Working Group under the Sherpa track has identified key priorities that include preventing health emergencies, improving preparedness and response strategies, tackling antimicrobial resistance, and promoting the One Health framework. Additionally, the group focuses on strengthening cooperation in the pharmaceutical sector to ensure access to safe and effective medical countermeasures such as vaccines and therapeutics. Also, the group recognises the potential of digital health innovations in enhancing universal health coverage. For instance, AI-based tools and telemedicine can extend healthcare services to underserved areas, thereby bridging health inequities. This group emphasises the significance of a scientific foundation for policy initiatives, signalling a clear path toward a stronger integration of S&T in its agenda.

There are also science-specific G20 work streams: the Science 20 (S20), the Research and Innovation Initiative Gathering (RIIG), and the Chief Science Advisors’ Roundtable (CSAR).

The triad of science at G20: S20, RIIG and CSAR

The S20 engagement group consists of representatives from the scientific communities of G20 countries, aiming to promote communication and scientific cooperation among them. It also provides scientific advice and recommendations to G20 leaders. Under the Indian presidency, the S20 is focusing on the thematic areas of Clean Energy for a Greener Future’, Universal Holistic Health’, and Science for Society and Culture’. The S20 is actively involved in outreach activities, with the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) as its official knowledge partner and organising various events in this direction. However, as an engagement group, the recommendations and declarations from S20 are not binding. 

On the other hand, the RIIG, led by the science ministries, has the potential for more substantive outcomes in promoting research and innovation collaboration. Its goal is to foster international scientific cooperation and develop sustainable solutions for science-driven equity by sharing best practices, collaborating on research projects, and developing policies to ensure equitable access to the benefits of research and innovation. It proposes the establishment of a G20 working group on Research, Innovation, and Equity, which would bring together leading economic powers to address these challenges. The four priority areas of RIIG under India’s G20 Presidency are i) Materials for Sustainable Energy; ii) Circular bio-economy; iii) Eco-Innovations for Energy Transition; and iv) Scientific Challenges and Opportunities for a Sustainable Blue Economy.

Distinctly, the G20-CSAR, a new initiative under the Indian presidency and led by the Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India. It focuses on addressing larger structural and policy issues impacting the science ecosystems of countries. The thematic areas under this initiative include One Health’, Access to Scholarly Scientific Knowledge’, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) in Science and Technology’, and Institutional Mechanism for the Global Science and Technology Policy Dialogue’. The CSAR has the potential to become a vital hub for science advisors from the G20 countries to share insights and engage in discussions on pressing global issues, with the aim of establishing a formal institutional mechanism. 

Challenges of coordinating G20 science dialogues

However, the effectiveness of these science dialogues at the G20 is hindered by the inherent siloed nature of government activities. This can lead to fragmented discussions, duplicated efforts, and potential contradictions in outcomes. For example, One Health is a key agenda for the Health and Agriculture working groups, S20, and the CSAR, indicating overlapping efforts and potential lack of coordination. Similarly, clean and sustainable energy is a major theme in the Energy Transition working group, S20, and the RIIG, highlighting the potential for redundancy and inefficiency.

Further, geopolitical differences and diplomatic tensions among G20 members can impede the outcomes of science-focused discussions. Also, there are significant disparities in national policies and approaches regarding different agenda points. For example, in the area of access to scientific knowledge” being discussed in the CSAR, several major countries have open access policies that significantly differ from one another. Similarly, there are substantial variations in national policies promoting technological innovations for energy transitions. Reaching a consensus on such issues will be challenging. Additionally, there are considerable differences in scientific capacities and resources among G20 members, which could result in more advanced nations leveraging their resources to drive the agenda in these meetings.

Harnessing science diplomacy: A long road ahead

Although progress has been made in international scientific cooperation through the G20, there is still much ground to cover. It is crucial to bridge the gap between scientific recommendations and policy implementation, ensuring that the recommendations have a binding nature. Also, there is a need to promote equitable global scientific collaborations.

Despite these challenges, the potential for transformation through these forums in the global science, technology, and innovation landscape cannot be denied. As India engages in these discussions, it becomes imperative to leverage this platform to align global priorities with India’s national agenda. It is crucial to advocate for an equitable scientific order and to accelerate scientific and technological advancements through actionable and collaborative strategies. By doing so, India can contribute to the progress and development of science and technology on a global scale.