Goals of a vital nature

While the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have yet to achieve mainstream attention, UQ researchers are working hard to ensure Australia meets its obligations to the world.

A soccer field with goal posts positioned in front of icebergs in Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland.

How many United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can you name? If you're left scratching your head, you're not alone.

In 2015, 193 countries pledged their commitment to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of ambitious targets that aim to fight inequality, end all forms of poverty and tackle climate change, among other priorities.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals that preceded them, the SDGs apply universally and place the onus on countries of every status – poor, rich and middle income – to take action, with a deadline of 2030.

Yet, while the 17 SDGs are of clear and vital importance to the future of the planet, many people are unaware of their existence, let alone what actions are required to achieve widespread change.

Across UQ a raft of researchers are working diligently towards improving the fortunes of the planet and the people inhabiting it - with many of their projects closely aligning with the SDG principles.

Professor Karen Hussey, Director of the UQ Centre for Policy Futures, sees great opportunity to raise the profile of the SDGs and further consolidate political and communal adherence to the goals.

“Internationally, the SDGs are the most significant political agenda there is, shaping policy and investment decision-making and generating important opportunities for governments to think holistically about sustainable development," Professor Hussey says.

"As a wealthy country with the resources and robust governance structures, Australia could take a strong leadership role in implementing and monitoring the SDGs,”

“The collaborative nature of the SDGs means a great number of Australians must be involved in championing them in the public, private and non-government organisation (NGO) sectors.

"We also have a responsibility to our regional neighbours to support their efforts to achieve the SDGs and the Australian Government's pivot back to the Pacific bodes well for such an approach."

Colourful graphic showing the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

It’s tempting for the populations of ‘more developed’ nations, such as Australia, to think that the SDGs are already in check and require minimal attention.

Yet there is still significant domestic action needed for the impact of the SDGs to be as bold and transformative as intended.

Professor Hussey says this requires the SDGs to be implanted in the social conscience, understood and valued.

Professor Karen Hussey, Director of the UQ Centre for Policy Futures

“This is something all Australians should be talking about and promoting,” Professor Hussey says.

"But it’s also important that the remarkable knowledge generated in our universities is translated and applied in such a way as to support the implementation of the SDGs.

"The onus is on us to make it as easy as possible for our partners in government, business and communities to work with us on solutions that will make a real difference."

Professor Hussey says that in order for Australia to fulfil its obligations under the SDGs, the federal government should be engaging people from across the community, including those in civil society organisations and the private sector.

“The federal government must collaborate with state and local governments to provide mechanisms for responses and action towards achieving the SDGs,” she says.

"While it’s the Australian Government that has to report against the SDG framework, the vast majority of action to achieve the goals will occur at state, territory and local levels.

“There are enormous and strategic economic and social benefits from meeting these international commitments."

However, the targets are not something that can be conquered from the halls of political power alone.

Instead of focusing solely on the obligations of the SDGs, Professor Hussey believes the benefits also need to be made blatantly evident to the wider community.

“There are enormous and strategic economic and social benefits from meeting these international commitments, and we should be reinforcing to the Australian people the significant long-term advantages associated with implementing the SDGs” she says.

“Vital long-term benefits include improved community health and wellbeing, increased economic productivity, as well as enhanced natural and built environments.

“The improved information systems and more accurate population data brought about by reporting advances on SDGs will also assist local, state and national governments to make better decisions about where and how to invest in the future .”

While there is certainly work to be done in raising awareness of the SDGs in the wider community, researchers and experts across Australia are working together on collaborative projects that are making headway on a number of the goals.

Professor Karen Hussey sitting in a modern office at UQ St Lucia.

Professor Karen Hussey, Director of the UQ Centre for Policy Futures

Professor Karen Hussey, Director of the UQ Centre for Policy Futures


With some 60 peer-reviewed and other publications behind her, Dr Claire Brolan is a respected authority on tackling complex domestic and global health and development policy and planning challenges.

Black and white image of Dr Claire Brolan standing in front of white wall.

Dr Claire Brolan

Dr Claire Brolan

Working as a research fellow within UQ's Centre for Policy Futures, her current focus is the SDGs and working towards the 2030 Agenda in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

In doing so, Dr Brolan draws on her extensive training and in-the-field experience in international law, global health policy, social science, biomedicine, and health and human rights education.

She has previously led legal and social advocacy for access to essential medicines, health care and related social services for vulnerable and minority populations in both Australia and the United Kingdom.

Dr Brolan has also worked with leading scholars from around the world, providing advice and guidance to the European Commission on Health and Wellbeing.

Her research approach reflects the fact that the SDGs encompass a series of complex problems and that responding to them will require the following three elements:

  1. Interdisciplinary collaboration and research involving academia, government, civil society, communities and the private sector
  2. A focus on systematic change, grounded in strong governance frameworks
  3. SDG policy, planning, implementation and monitoring that involve effective, transparent and path-breaking synergetic partnerships at community, sub-national, national, regional and global levels.
Two businesswomen look at a tablet during a meeting.

(SDGs 1, 4, 10)

Dr Marnee Shay has published widely on the topics of Indigenous education policy, education inequalities, alternative schooling and Indigenous research and methodology.

With strong personal connections to Wagiman country in the Northern Territory and to Aboriginal communities in South East Queensland, Dr Shay's research and engagement is centred on social justice, diversity and community.

A Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Policy Futures, she has influenced school-wide reviews and school-wide policy development, and instigated changes in the way Indigenous education is undertaken.

Dr Shay has been a strong advocate for ensuring the voices of young people are central in developing scholarship, policy imperatives and practice approaches that affect them and their futures.

Dr Marnee Shay explores innovative approaches to Indigenous education.

Her most recent work has focused on developing a dataset that explores what excellence is or can be in Indigenous education.

In a policy environment that is underpinned by gaps and deficits, Dr Shay hopes to transform the narrative of Indigenous young people from gaps to strengths.

“In investigating excellence in Indigenous education, I recognise the excellence that already exists in Indigenous young people," she says.

"The shift needs to occur in how education systems are approaching Indigenous education."

The impetus of this project is to explore what Indigenous education excellence could look like in policy and provision of education so the system meets the needs of Indigenous young people.

Dr Marnee Shay standing in front of Indigenous artwork.

Dr Marnee Shay explores innovative approaches to Indigenous education.

Dr Marnee Shay explores innovative approaches to Indigenous education.

Professor Mark Moran talks while standing in front of a tree outdoors.

Professor Mark Moran instructs the course with Dr Jodie Curth-Bibb, along with a broad cross-section of UQ academics working towards achieving SDGs.

Professor Mark Moran instructs the course with Dr Jodie Curth-Bibb, along with a broad cross-section of UQ academics working towards achieving SDGs.


This free UQx massive open online course (MOOC) is led by Professor Mark Moran of UQ’s Institute for Social Science Research.

Professor Mark Moran instructs the course with Dr Jodie Curth-Bibb, along with a broad cross-section of UQ academics working towards achieving SDGs.

Its core focus is articulating the science and policies that drive sustainable development and exploring how the UN’s SDGs can be achieved.

There is particular attention paid to how the SDGs interrelate.

To exhibit how integral sustainable development is to humankind’s everyday existence, students learn about planetary boundaries, urbanisation and growing inequality.

Participants are also taught the scientific underpinnings of sustainable development practice and how policy-makers are trying to apply it to better govern scarce resources.

Recent, real-life examples are used to illustrate the urgent challenges at hand, with emphasis placed on the links between science and policy.

A key ambition of the course is to encourage participants to implement their learnings in their own roles as development leaders.


The CSIRO–UQ Alliance is a five-year co-funded agreement that began in December 2017 to assess the benefits, risks and uncertainties that science and technology innovations present to society and the environment.

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is currently investigating a number of Future Science Platforms (FSPs), which range from artificial intelligence to space technology, to data mining and synthetic biology.

Rather than wait until the innovations are ready to launch before investigating the full array of impacts, this is a key priority in the development phase.

Working across the FSPs, the alliance is also focusing on several inter-related areas of inquiry to bring social science and humanities insights to the innovation process, including:

  1. Identifying the multidimensionality of potential risks and responsibilities
  2. Understanding trust in emerging technologies
  3. Developing institutional effectiveness to seize opportunities and manage risk
  4. Highlighting policy, regulatory, legal and community mechanisms to facilitate positive outcomes from emerging technologies while minimising social, cultural and environmental risks.

As part of the alliance, eight PhD scholarships for high-calibre social science or humanities graduates are being offered.

Those chosen will undertake doctoral research on the policy, regulatory, legal, social, environmental or ethical challenges posed by new areas of science and technology.

A broad range of supervisors drawn from within UQ and CSIRO are providing the necessary expertise.

The chosen cohort will be given various opportunities not previously aligned to PhD studies, including training opportunities, funded projects, co-authorship opportunities, secondment arrangements with the industry partner, and summer schools.

Graphic art of a city skyline with mobile phones connected by technological networks.

FOOD SECURITY BY QAAFI (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 11, 13, 15)

The vast majority of projects undertaken by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) relate to food security in some manner.

A UQ research institute, supported by the Queensland Government, QAAFI­­ is a global leader in tropical and subtropical agriculture and food science research.

Among the projects being undertaken is an innovative analysis of how big data can be used to protect crops from climate change and maximise resource efficiency.

Examples of this work can already be found in sorghum crops, with research also underway on wheat yields.

QAAFI's crop growth model provides a way to harness data in ways that are biologically meaningful and useful to growers.

­­Another breakthrough in agricultural technology is helping to reduce production losses due to pests and pathogens, without incurring the toxic impact of many chemical sprays.

The new approach involves boosting the plant’s own defences to naturally attack specific viruses.

Yet another research project relates to establishing an industry around unique Australia bush tucker, working in partnership with Indigenous communities.

The concept simultaneously creates a protected market with a point-of-difference to international markets and addresses SDG concerns about inequality and poverty.

Grain silos on the horizon at sunrise in Roma, Queensland.

QAAFI's crop growth model provides a way to harness data in ways that are biologically meaningful and useful to growers.

QAAFI's crop growth model provides a way to harness data in ways that are biologically meaningful and useful to growers.


The Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre project is tasked with taking innovative and best-practice approaches to sustainable seafood and renewable energy production in marine environments.

The cause is of particular importance to Australia, which enjoys the world’s third-largest Exclusive Economic Zone.

One of the primary goals of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) is to bring the aquaculture and renewable energy sectors together to address the challenges of offshore food and energy production.

Presently, a major obstacle to expanding both of these industries offshore is the lack of knowledge and experience in operating effectively in remote and exposed locations.

By bringing the two together, it is possible to more finitely explore the benefits of co-location, vertical integration, shared infrastructure and services.

Decades of experience can be drawn from learned knowledge from the offshore oil and gas industries, as well as open-water shipping and naval exploits.

Australia’s vast oceans are described by the CRC as “the heritage, heart and economic future of our country”.

The highest per capita consumers of seafood in the world are located in Asia, and demand will only increase as populations continue to rise.

This presents opportunities and challenges to Australia in both securing and sustainably developing aquaculture resources.

There is an annual revenue target of $100 billion set by Australia’s National Marine Science Plan, while Australia’s federal government has set a renewable energy target of 33,000 GWh in Australia by 2020.

Such is the scale of the CRC, that it represents a collaboration between 45 participating entities from 11 different nations, including fellow Asia-Pacific hubs New Zealand and Singapore.

Blue and white Australia and Oceania map illustration.


While focused on the world’s largest reef – Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef – this program also hopes to develop technologies that could be adapted to other reefs around the globe.

Essentially, the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program is looking at ways to help reefs resist, repair and recover by themselves.

This can include everything from adjusting the physical environment to offer wider coral protection, to translocating other corals with elevated temperature resistance, selective breeding and genetic modification.

After disturbances such as cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, coral bleaching and ship groundings, repair can also be accelerated by modifying the reef substrate, which helps ‘knit’ coral colonies back together again quickly.

Active restoration by cost-effective deployment of larvae or key species ‘seed stock’ are other avenues being explored.

A partnership of Australian universities, research agencies, marine park managers and charities, the program sees UQ experts working alongside several other esteemed organisations.

These include the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, CSIRO, James Cook University, Queensland University of Technology and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Underpinning priorities for solutions are that they must:

  • protect key ecological functions and economic and social values of the Great Barrier Reef
  • be logically feasible to deploy at scale
  • be priced in a way that is affordable to deploy across entire reefscapes.
Tropical clown fish hiding in anemone.

Working with colleagues across UQ, in 2018 the Centre for Policy Futures led a submission to an Australian Government inquiry into the SDGs.

In order to keep Australia’s progress on SDGs front-of-mind and readily-available, the submission's authors recommended that a report is issued publicly every three months.

"Reporting on SDGs must be stitched into the main fabric of Australian society, in the same way that GDP (gross domestic product) is highlighted," Professor Hussey says.

“Data collected for monitoring and reporting should be communicated and shared using systems that are coherent, consistent and ‘clean’, allowing for easy compilation and analysis.

“That information should then be displayed to the general public in ways that are understandable, interesting and digestible, using the latest tools, methods and mediums available.”

Professor Hussey also recommended that schools and universities be encouraged to communicate the indicators of SDG progress through education programs and curriculum.

There are some paradoxes of modern Australian life that underpin the importance of addressing the goals.

For instance, Australians enjoy one of the safest and most secure food systems in the world, and yet around 60 per cent of Australians are overweight or obese, creating a huge burden on not only health care, but also to the social fabric of the community.

Australia is also thought of as its own contained ecosystem and less polluted than other industrialised nations, yet the continent is at the mercy of a highly variable climate that emphasises the importance of water resources and sustainable agricultural and energy generation methods.

This is why UQ experts believe 'quality of life' metrics should be used to present an accurate picture of progress towards the SDGs.

There is also a substantial opportunity for Australia to take a leadership position in the Pacific in regard to the SDGs, and this ties into the work that Professor Hussey and others at UQ are involved in on a range of projects with The Pacific Community (SPC Secretariat of the Pacific Community).

Established following the Second World War to restore stability and prosperity to the region, SPC is the premier science and technical agency in the Pacific, with 26 member states and territories.

SPC provides scientific and technical assistance in a number of areas including agriculture, transport, fisheries, trade finance, education and social welfare.

The Centre for Policy Futures has been engaged to review the SPC so it can maintain a strong position and leverage the unique time and place in which the Pacific region finds itself.

UQ enjoys a strong relationship with SPC, with researchers from the Centre for Policy Futures, the Australian Institute for Business and Economics, the School of Public Health, amongst others, working with their counterparts in SPC on issues including climate change, health and wellbeing, food security, social and cultural values and economic development.

In combination, the potential is there for significant inroads to be made towards the all-important SDGs with persistent endeavour.

Ocean coastline of Tuvalu viewed from an aeroplane window.
Professor Karen Hussey smiling in front of a wall of green ferns.

Professor Karen Hussey

Professor Karen Hussey

Professor Karen Hussey

Contact details

Professor Karen Hussey 

Email: k.hussey@uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 7 344 33154
Web:  researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/13267

Last updated 12 September 2019.

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