Research at the forefront of the global race for sustainable development, says UNESCO report

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Most countries, regardless of their level of income, now see research and innovation as key to fostering sustainable economic growth and furthering their development. This is one of the conclusions of the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030.

“In the wake of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals to 2030 by the United Nations General Assembly, the UNESCO Science Report clearly shows that research is both a motor for economic development and a cornerstone in the construction of societies that are more sustainable and more respectful of the planet,” said the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova.

The Report’s first lesson is that, despite the economic crisis that hit industrialized countries in 2008, gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) increased globally by 31% between 2007 and 2013, rising from USD 1,132 billion in 2007 to USD 1,478 billion in 2013. This increase was more rapid than that of global gross domestic product (GDP) during the same period (20%).

The USA still leads, with 28% of global investment in R&D, followed by China (20%) – now ahead of the European Union (19%) – and Japan (10%). The rest of the world represents 67% of the global population but just 23% of global investment in R&D. Nevertheless, research investment by countries such as Brazil, India and Turkey is increasing rapidly.

The increase in R&D spending owes a great deal to the private sector, which has compensated for frozen or reduced public spending in a number of industrialized countries, such as Italy, the United Kingdom and France. This trend is particularly apparent in Canada (whose world share of R&D spending dropped from 2.1% in 2007 to 1.5% in 2013) and Australia, where significant cuts were made to research funding and applied sciences were prioritized to the detriment of basic research.

Moreover, say the authors of the report, basic research does not only generate new knowledge; it also contributes to the quality of higher education. In the long term, the balance of funding between applied and basic research can also affect the pace at which knowledge spreads. The Green Revolution, which enabled a significant increase in global agricultural output starting in the 1950s, drew almost entirely on research by public sector laboratories and universities. The picture is very different today, with advances in genetics and biotechnology largely coming out of private companies that are much more protective of their knowledge.

If global spending on R&D has increased despite the economic crisis, it is largely because it has been identified as a key factor in promoting economic growth and development. As a result, a great many countries, regardless of the size of their income, now see research and innovation as a way to keep up in a highly competitive world or find their place in it.

This is the case in Africa, where there is growing recognition that the development of modern infrastructure, such as hospitals, roads, railways, etc., and a more diversified economy require investment in science and technology, as well as the constitution of a skilled workforce. Kenya, for example, devoted 0.79% of its GDP to R&D in 2010 compared to just 0.36% in 2007. R&D spending is also increasing in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique and Uganda.

In the context of increased R&D investment, technologies fostering sustainable development are an emerging priority for a number of countries, which fits with the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in September 2015. This is especially the case in Latin America where 19 countries have adopted policies in favour of renewable energy. Uruguay intends to generate 90% of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2015. Chile and Mexico have significantly increased their wind and solar energy production capacity.

Similar projects are being undertaken in the Arab States. Morocco, for example, inaugurated Africa’s largest wind farm in 2014 and is developing what could turn out to be Africa’s biggest solar farm. In 2015, Saudi Arabia announced a programme to develop solar energy.

The investment in research also translates into an increase in the number of scientists, estimated at 7.8 million worldwide, which is up by more than 20% since 2007. The European Union has the most (22% of the world share), followed by China (19%) and USA (16.7%).

There has also been a parallel explosion in the number of scientific publications, which have increased by 23% since 2008. In 2014 there were around 1.27 million per month. Europe also leads in this field (34% of world share), followed by the USA (25%), although their respective shares have seen a slight decrease. The number of publications coming out of China has almost doubled in five years, achieving nearly 20% of the world total, compared to 5% ten years ago. This demonstrates the maturity of the Chinese research system in terms of investments, number of researchers and publications.

As well as being more numerous, scientists are also more mobile. Despite the development of the Internet and the multiplication of online networks, doctoral-level researchers still feel the need to travel. The increasing mobility of PhD students in turn influences the mobility of researchers. “This is perhaps one of the most important trends of recent times,” say the authors of the Report.

Students from the Arab States, Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe are the most likely to study abroad. Europe and North America are still the preferred destinations for students. The USA alone receives almost half (49%) of international students enrolled in doctoral science or engineering courses. The United Kingdom comes second (9%), followed by France (7%) and Australia (4.6%).

Since the economic crisis of 2008, Europe and North America have lost some of their attraction. Meanwhile, students who wish to study abroad now have a wider choice. South Africa hosted about 60,000 international students in 2009. Cuba is one of the most popular destinations for students from Latin America, attracting 17,000 from the continent, compared to 5,000 who study in Brazil and 2000 in Chile. Another example is Malaysia, which expects to become the sixth most popular destination for international students by 2020. From 2007 to 2012, the number of international students in Malaysia almost doubled to 56,000.

Even countries suffering from brain drain are now attracting researchers. Sudan, for example, lost 3,000 researchers who went to neighbouring countries where conditions are better, notably Ethiopia, between 2002 and 2014. But Sudan also became a host country for students from the Arab world and Africa.

While, globally, women have achieved parity at Master’s level, their share diminishes at PhD level to 43% of all doctoral graduates. The gap continues to widen after this, as women only represent 28.4% of the world’s researchers. They also have more limited access to funding than men and are less well represented in prestigious universities. They remain a minority in senior positions, whether on faculty boards or at the higher levels of decision-making in universities.

The regions with the greatest number of women researchers are Southeast Europe (49%), the Caribbean, Central Asia and Latin America (44%). Interestingly, in the Arab States 37% of researchers are women, which is a higher proportion than in the European Union (33%).

A number of countries have put in place policies to reverse this trend. In 2013 Germany, for example, introduced a 30% quota for women on corporate boards of directors. Japan’s selection criteria for large university grants also seek to increase the representation of women among teaching staff and researchers.

“Formulating a successful national science and innovation policy remains a very difficult task”, conclude the authors of the report. This will require simultaneous action on several fronts, whether it is education, basic research, technological development or indeed private investment in R&D. The 2008 economic crisis, which made many industrialized countries tighten their budgets, has rendered this task even more difficult.

While most R&D takes place in high-income countries, innovation is now occurring in a large number of countries, whatever their income level. Some innovation is occurring without any R&D activity at all. The authors of the report therefore encourage policy makers not to focus exclusively on designing corporate incentives for R&D, but also to target innovation, in the form of technology transfer and the acquisition of machinery, equipment and software, which are all key elements in the innovation process.

While most science policies advocate stronger links between the private sector, universities and public research institutions, these commitments often come to nothing, the report observes, quoting a 2013 survey carried out by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in 65 countries. The report encourages policy makers to draft strategies to try to reverse this trend.

The UNESCO Science Report also emphasises the importance of good governance for innovation-driven development. Corruption in the university system is an obstacle to the education of qualified graduates. It is also a disincentive for the private sector. Companies will have little interest in investing in R&D if they cannot rely on the justice system to defend their intellectual property.

The UNESCO Science Report is prepared by a team of international experts. It presents a picture of the trends in global research and development, based on a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data. The report is divided into chapters focusing on different regions (including the Pacific, and included references to PACE-Net Plus), presenting new insights into some countries and essays on specific themes, such as the role of indigenous knowledge. The UNESCO Science Report is published every five years.

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