This is the year that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will give way to a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be published this September.

The UN has a long history of setting ambitious development targets, going all the way back to the 1960s, and while progress is usually made, it’s rare for goals to be fully achieved, leaving an aftertaste of perceived failure. Even when targets are met, it’s not always easy to establish who deserves the credit. Nevertheless, having high ambitions is laudable, and setting targets to focus attention on key issues is a worthy objective in its own right. The UN deserves considerable credit for keeping these issues in the spotlight.

We don’t yet know what the sustainable development goals will be, but they will surely cover much of the same ground as the Millennium Development Goals: poverty alleviation, education, gender equality and empowerment of women, child and maternal health, environmental sustainability, reducing HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases, and building a global partnership for development.

These encompass the eight Millennium Development Goals, and they’re all important, but for me, one stands out above the rest: education. Without education, the others cannot succeed, and without education in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, development cannot be sustainable.

Before going on to consider why, let’s take a look at how the world has done in delivering on the MDGs. When the UN took stock in 2010, 700 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty than in 1990, but that’s little consolation to the 1.2 billion still surviving on less then $1.25 per day. The percentage of children in developing regions receiving a primary education went up from 82% to 90%, but there’s still work to be done. Gender equality and women’s empowerment remains an issue. Child mortality has fallen dramatically, as has maternal mortality. Progress is being made on infectious diseases, the current Ebola outbreak notwithstanding. Ensuring environmental sustainability remains a work in progress to say the very least, as does the establishment of a global partnership for development.

Why education matters so much

So it’s a mixed bag. Good progress on some fronts, stagnation or even backwards progress on others. To keep in line with my theme, if I were writing a school report for the world’s efforts on achieving the MDGs, I’d say something like: “Tries hard, could do better”. And the thing that can make things better is education.

Education has long been high on the development agenda, and links to poverty reduction are well established. Educating children, particularly girls, is widely considered the best way of lifting communities out of poverty. Educated girls are more active in many walks of life and they are better equipped to take part in decision-making processes. This is so well documented that it even has a name – the girl effect – and has given rise to a movement whose supporters include the United Nations Foundation, which aims to leverage the potential of the estimated 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty today.

The development agenda, as its name suggests, is strongly focused on the developing world. This to me is dangerous and complacent. Development is equally relevant in the so-called developed world, where if we lose our focus we risk going backwards. In some sense, this is already happening – in part to due educational shortcomings occasioned by the increasing breach between science and society.  So I would go a step further than focussing on children’s education in the developing world, and argue that if the world is to achieve the lofty goals set for it by the UN, then we need to up our educational game everywhere, not just in the poorest regions. And the subject areas that we need to focus on are STEM subjects.

The return of old enemies

We may talk about reducing HIV/AIDS in the developing world, thanks largely to education, yet at the same time in the developed world, old enemies are making a comeback, arguably due to lack of education. The children’s diseases we thought were defeated have resurfaced because we’ve stopped vaccinating our children. Bacterial infections, once distant memories, are overcoming our antibiotic defences because we have failed to use antibiotics appropriately. Education, formal and informal, is key in addressing the kinds of behaviours that have led us to this situation, as well as in training the scientists who will have to take us beyond antibiotics as the war on disease moves on to the next front.

It is a similar story when looking at environmental sustainability. The world needs both a STEM-literate population capable of taking collective decisions in a rational, evidence-based way, as well as the scientists and technologists who can deliver the kinds of technologies that reconcile the conflicting requirements of improving standards of living and reducing environmental impact. I for one can only see a technological way forward. I do not see the planet collectively making the necessary lifestyle changes that would be the alternative.

Why am I writing this here, in Davos, and now at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting? It’s because the theme for this year’s meeting is “the new global context”. As the Forum explains it, “We are confronted by profound political, economic, social and, above all, technological transformations. They are altering long-standing assumptions about our prospects, resulting in an entirely new global context for decision-making”.

The key part of that context is, in my opinion, the increasing and urgent need for an educated, particularly STEM-educated, population. With education, we stand a better chance of achieving the ambitious sustainable development goals that we’ll surely see published in September. What I would like to see in those goals is education built into each one, as well as being a goal in its own right. Only then may we stand a chance of mastering the new global context.

Author: Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General, CERN

Image: A teacher helps his student with a physics experiment at the Oxford International College in Changzhou, Jiangsu province January 10, 2013.  REUTERS/Aly Song