UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030

On November 10th the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 was published. This report is published every five years and presents a picture of the trends in global research and development, based on a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data.

Credit: UNESCO.

Credit: UNESCO.

One of the most important outcomes of the report is that 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. Five regions represent 77% of the global investment in R&D: 28% for USA, 20% for China, 19% for the European Union and 10% for Japan. The other 67% of the global population just represent 23% of global investment in R&D. 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, France or Spain.

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.

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.

Share of female researchers by country, 2013 or closest year (%). Credit: UNESCO.

Share of female researchers by country, 2013 or closest year (%). Credit: UNESCO.

The report also states that there is still a problem with gender equality in science. On the whole women constitute a minority in the research world. They also tend to have more limited access to funding than men and to be less represented in prestigious universities and among senior faculty, whether on faculty boards or at the higher levels of decision-making in universities, which puts them at a further disadvantage in high-impact publishing.

The regions with the highest shares of women researchers are Southeast Europe (49%), the Caribbean, Central Asia and Latin America (44%). Sub-Saharan Africa counts 30% women and South Asia 17%. Southeast Asia presents a contrasting picture, with women representing 52% of researchers in the Philippines and Thailand, for instance, but only 14% in Japan and 18% in the Republic of Korea. 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.

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.

Regarding establishing succesful national science and innovation policies, the authors of the report conclude that remains a very difficult task. 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.

For more information and to get closer look at countries and regions you can read the Executive Summary and the Full Report.

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