Research on Sustainability at the University of Basel

An overview of research on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the University of Basel (2010-2020)

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, Source:


The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become an important guideline for higher-education institutions to monitor and plan their contributions to social, economic, and environmental transformations.

As a consequence, the past years have seen the development of new procedures to monitor the educational and research contributions of higher-education institutions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These approaches have been so far spearheaded by for-profit organizations with methodologies that are only partly publicly available.

The Sustainability Office and the Center for Cognitive and Decision Sciences of the University of Basel developed a partnership to conduct an overview of the University of Basel’s contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while making results and methodology publicly available.

This project was funded by IMPULS, a program of the University of Basel and U-Change:


The approach consisted of using text-mining techniques with established search queries to identify University of Basel’s research output related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The search queries reported below stemmed from Elsevier (Jayabalasingham, Boverhof, Agnew & Klein, 2019) and text search was implemented in R (R Core Team, 2021) using the corpustools package (Welbers & van Atteveldt, 2021). We also conducted analysis using alternative queries from the Aurora network but these provide considerably fewer matches overall and are not presented here (see section Limitations and Outlook below). The analyses focus on only 16 of the 17 SGDs, because the SDG 17, “Partnerships for the goals”, can be regarded as a meta-goal for implementing the SDGs and is not associated with dedicated search queries (cf. Jayabalasingham et al., 2020).

The Sustainability Office supplied data on the University of Basel’s research output from two internal databases (i.e., Research Database and the Grants Office database). These data consisted of information on academic publications (e.g., auhors, title, doi) and projects (e.g., PI, title, abstract, funding source) involving University of Basel’s academic staff. The research database did not include abstracts for the publications, so these were retrieved using the Scopus API and the rscopus package (Muschelli, 2019). The databases refer to several organizational units but labels differ across time and databases. Consequently, team members categorized organizational units manually.

Only publications and projects that were published or completed from 2010 to 2020 and for which title and abstracts in English were available were included in the analyses. Additional information about the databases and related processing steps is provided in Data.

Distribution of SDGs

Of the 18458 publications for which a title and abstract were available in English, a total of 5463 (30%) matched at least one of the SDGs. The highest number of matches, 4604, concerned SDG-03, “Good health and well-being”, with the second highest number of matches, with total of 289 publications, concerning SDG-13, “Climate action”.

A similar pattern was found for projects: Out of the 1040 projects for which a title and abstract were available in English, a total of 336 (32%) matched at least one of the SDGs. SDG-03, “Good health and well-being”, received the most matches, with a total of 234 projects. In turn, SDG-16, “Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions”, and SDG-13, “Climate action”, received about a similar number of matches, with a total of 28 and 27 projects, respectively.

The figure below shows the relative frequency of outputs dealing with each of the SDGs for publications and projects (further distinguishing between internally- and externally-funded projects). The figure also provides a comparison to the relative frequency of SGDs found by Elsevier based on an literature overview of the global scientific output as represented in the Scopus database (cf., Elsevier, 2020). Overall, the results suggest that the pattern of SDG-related research at the University of Basel is overall similar to that of the global scientific output, perhaps with a somewhat larger focus on SDG-03, “Good health and well-being” in what concerns publications.

SDG-matches in publications and projects

Distribution of SDGs by Organizational Unit

The figure below shows the distribution of SDG-matches in publications stratified by organizational unit. We do not present results concerning organizational units with fewer than 50 matches nor the data on projects, because the latter involved a small number of matches overall.

As can be seen below, the amounts of publications with SDG contributions differ somewhat between organizational units but several seem to have a focal contribution to SDG-03, “Good health and well-being”.

Notably, the organizational units contribute to SDG-03 in different ways. Publications of Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute were most often identified as contributing to SDG-03, “Good health and well-being” for including the keyword “malaria”, those of the Faculties of Science, Faculty of Medicine, and the Institute for Biomedical Ethics for including the keyword “cancer”, and those of the Faculty of Psychology for including the keyword “mental disorder”. Consequently, while all these organizational units seem to contribute to SDG-03, “Good health and well-being”, they have clearly different research foci.

SDG-matches in publications by organizational unit

Limitations and Outlook


The University of Basel’s research output shows considerable contributions to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with an overall profile that matches the global academic production (Elsevier, 2020).

Further work is necessary to better understand the nature of the University of Basel’s contributions to the SDGs, for example, by directly comparing it to other Swiss and international higher-education institutions.


Bordignon, F. (2021). Dataset of search queries to map scientific publications to the UN sustainable development goals. Data in Brief, 34, 106731.

Elsevier (2020). The Power of Data to Advance the SDGs: Mapping Research for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Jayabalasingham, B., Boverhof, R., Agnew, K., & Klein, L. (2019). Identifying research supporting the United Nations sustainable development goals. Mendeley Data.

Muschelli, J. (2019). rscopus. R package version 0.6.6.

R Core Team (2021). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria.

Welbers, K. & van Atteveldt, W. (2021). corpustools: Managing, querying and analyzing tokenized text. R package version 0.4.7.