UNESCO highlights gaps in science spending

medical technician looking into a microscope
A medical technician checks blood samples for waterborne diseases. A new UNESCO report says that eight out of 10 countries spend less than one per cent of GDP on research. Copyright: Asian Development Bank, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). This image has been cropped.

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  • Eight out of 10 countries spend less than one per cent of GDP on research
  • Artificial intelligence and robotics are ‘dynamic fields’ of research
  • COVID-19 boosted research and development and related investments

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[NEW DELHI] Increases in science spending in recent years have been boosted further by the COVID-19 pandemic – but the figures conceal huge disparities, said a UNESCO report.

Spending on science increased by 19 per cent from 2014 to 2018 and the number of scientists grew by 13.7 per cent, the report found. It said that 30 countries have raised their research spending since 2014, in commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, with COVID-19 furthering the trend.

To achieve their goals of digital and green economies, many countries have raised their research expenditure explains Susan Schneegans, coordinator and editor-in-chief of the UNESCO report.

Despite this, eight out of 10 countries still devote less than one per cent of GDP to research, many of them relying “on imports of foreign technologies” and leaning “towards technological dependency that is impeding the development of industries,” Schneegans says.

Video credit: UNESCO.

“When it comes to percentage of GDP spent, we have a lot of ground to cover to reach the goal we [have] set for ourselves, i.e., two per cent of GDP,” Kaushik Basu, assistant professor at Medical College, Kolkata, India, says.

But in spite of modest funding, countries like India produce “good quality data” from research carried out in top, globally renowned institutes, Basu emphasises.

The report identified artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics as “dynamic fields” of research. In lower and middle-income countries, 25.3 per cent of research publications in 2019 were carried out in these fields, compared to 12.8 per cent in 2015.

However, various important fields of research failed to attract substantial investment. The field of sustainable energy, for example, represented only 2.5 per cent of global publications in 2019, UNESCO found.

“In my own view, a target of three [per cent] of global GDP in research and development is achievable by 2030.”

Glenn Withers, Australian National University

According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a substantial boost in research and development spending across various countries. Innovation agencies in Argentina and Brazil last year started “calls for research” with an “accelerated approval” procedure.

India’s response to the pandemic focused on “producing low-cost solutions mainly in three areas: vaccine research and manufacturing; the manufacture of generic versions of ‘game-changer’ drugs; and frugal engineering of medical devices in high demand, such as low-cost lung ventilators”, the report said.

The report also found that open access to research publications still applies to only one out of four publications; the majority of researchers cannot access over 70 per cent of research publications. It notes that only one-third of researchers globally are women, with women making up just 22 per cent of the AI workforce.

UNESCO says it hopes to see the “restoration of public confidence in science”. “Today’s science contributes to shaping the world of tomorrow, which is why it is essential to prioritise humanity’s common goal of sustainability through ambitious science policy,” the report said.

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According to Glenn Withers, professor of economics and public policy at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, says the UNESCO report is a timely assessment of the scientific landscape.

“There are great disparities in where science is being supported, and barriers to accessing the growing knowledge base,” he says. “In my own view, a target of three [per cent] of global GDP in research and development is achievable by 2030. With open access, global co-operation, enhanced integration and effective communication of science, we can indeed aspire to a better world through knowledge.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.