The Goals of the Goals: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

by Scott Reddiex MRSV

This piece appears in the June 2023 edition of Science Victoria magazine. All issues can be read online for free at

Most of us share in the general feeling of wanting everything to be the best it can be: healthy people, healthy ecosystems, on a healthy planet.

Yet with all of the complex problems that the lives on Earth currently face, it can seem insurmountable. Where do we start? What then are the most important and most urgent problems to tackle? How do we, as a group of 7.97 billion people, solve the biggest issues?

One answer to the questions of ‘what’ and ‘how’ are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN-SDGs).

The UN-SDGs are 17 goals for improving human lives and protecting the environment, which identify the specific areas to address, provide achievable targets, and set the deadline of 2030.1

These goals haven’t appeared out of nowhere. Instead, they build on decades of work by the UN and member countries, and were adopted by world leaders at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in 2015. Each goal is further broken down with individual targets that are required to achieve the overall SDG.

The role of STEMM

The development of the SDGs and the work to reach these goals is dependent on the STEMM fields. Science has been a critical component of gathering data and highlighting the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental issues, and research in STEMM is crucial in identifying the most effective strategies for achieving the targets of each SDG. There is a critical role here for science communications, which translates complex scientific information into accessible language, engaging visuals, and compelling stories that can reach diverse audiences, including policymakers, the media, and the general public.

It’s one thing to have developed a solution, but that solution is meaningless if it can’t be explained to the people required for its translation.

How can we utilise the SDGs as individuals and organisations?

While these goals have broken down the overwhelming mass of problems to urgently address into slightly less-whelming pieces, they are still quite a task for any single group or individual to overcome. This leads us to the question of: how can we use the SDGs?

At the highest level, the goals set the shared goalposts, and make it easier for groups to signal and identify potential alignment in values and strategy. While it’s not an immediate guarantee of success, it serves as a useful level of filtering that says, “we might be on the same page about this”. For groups of people – companies, governments, community groups, organisations, etc. – the SDGs can be utilised in setting the local targets and developing informed strategies. This forms more of the ‘who are we, and what do we stand for?’, which can then be followed by advertising those values and finding the like-minded.

At an individual level, familiarity with the SDGs can make it easier to identify the major issues facing the planet, and to keep involved in addressing particular topics that a person might care about. Individual action could take the form of working with a community group, writing a letter to a member of parliament, addressing gender equality in the workplace, or choosing to shop with companies who are making meaningful steps to support one or more SDGs.

Where are we at?

With the UN-SDGs having come into force on 1 January 2016, we are now half-way towards the 2030 deadline. While good progress is being made against particular targets, an advance version of the 2023 SDG progress report indicates that ‘the world is not on track to meet most of the Goals by 2030.’2

Our response to this should never be simply to give up. To label it impossible, or lower the bar. These are big problems, but as a collection of almost 8 billion people, we currently have the ability to fix all of these problems. At the scale of individuals, communities, not-for-profits, and small businesses, there are financial pressures that have come in the wake of a pandemic and natural disasters. At the exact same time as many people around Australia are skipping meals to make their money last until next payday, companies like Santos3, the Commonwealth Bank4, BHP5, Qantas6, Woolworths7, Coles7, are posting profits (some of them record highs) in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.

The scientists and engineers are there. The urgent need is there. The motivation is there. The money is there. Now we need policies to follow.


  1. The UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  2. SDG Progress Report 2023 (Advance Unedited Version)(2023)
  3. Santos 2022 Full-Year Results
  4. CBA posts record half-year profit of $5.2b. (2023, February 14). Australian Financial Review.
  5. Eastwood, A. (2022, August 16). BHP racks up record $34b profit in FY22. Australian Mining.
  6. Qantas Group HY23 Appendix 4D and Interim Financial Report
  7. Pupazzoni, R., & Janda, M.. (2023, February 22). Coles, Woolworths profit surge raises questions over inflation profiteering. ABC News.