Sustainability science needs South-South collaboration

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Copyright: Flickr/UN Photo/Mark Garten

Speed read

  • Poor countries produce only 2 per cent of publications in sustainability science
  • Collaborations are dominated by rich countries with few South-South links
  • To improve, poor nations need more stable policies and better communicated science

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Our report shows research on sustainability is dominated by a few rich nations, and South-South links are lacking.
Fifteen years ago, the global effort reflected in the Millennium Development Goals raised hopes for a more sustainable future – as well as doubts and controversies about the value of those goals.
Last week (25 to 27 September), over 150 government representatives were confirmed to attend the UN summit in New York, where they are expected to adopt 17 Sustainable Development Goals to succeed the MDGs as part of the post-2015 development agenda.
A big question is: what is the role of science, technology and innovation in this global agenda? A report SciDev.Net produced with Elsevier, launched this week in New York, aims to provide some clues.

Growing science of sustainability

The report, Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape, is based primarily on bibliometric analysis of Scopus — Elsevier’s abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature, which covers 57 million documents published by 5000 publishers in about 22,000 journals, book series and conference proceedings. It is also based on interviews with experts in the field.

“Science capacity in low- and middle-income countries is still built like a sandcastle, without solid foundation.”

Luisa Massarani, SciDev.Net

The report examines sustainability science (defined as “research that supports and drives sustainable development”), and covers six research themes: Dignity, People, Prosperity, Planet, Justice, and Partnership.
Our analysis reveals that sustainability science makes up around 3 per cent of the world’s publications . And the total research output in the field grew from 56,390 papers in 2009 to 75,602 in 2013 — a growth rate of 7.6 per cent per year, almost twice the average growth rate of all publications in Scopus over the same period.
An important question here — which was not within scope of the report — is how much of this science has been translated into concrete actions that benefit society.
We know that there is a time lag between the production of research and its practical application. But given that policymakers have designed a 15-year sustainable development agenda, we need to create tools so every few years we can monitor the impact that the science feeding into that agenda will have on society.
Our report also found that just five countries — the United States, the UK, China, Germany and Australia — accounted for about 64 per cent of research output between 2009 and 2013. China has had the highest growth rate: the number of Chinese publications more than doubled over this period.
Approximately three quarters of publications in sustainability science were produced by high-income countries. Low income countries, which potentially stand to benefit from it the most, account for only 2 per cent of the publications in this field.

Collaborative science

We also found that research in sustainability science is highly collaborative — which is important for the post-2015 agenda, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the preface of a report launched earlier this month, he wrote that “Achieving the SDGs will require an even stronger global partnership, complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships to mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources.”

“We know so much more about science in the developed world than in the developing world.”

Luisa Massarani, SciDev.Net

Countries such as the US, the UK and Germany have been increasing their collaborations in sustainability science. But most of the collaboration in this field occurs between researchers in high-income and upper-middle-income countries — according to the report, collaboration between developed and developing countries remains low.

For researchers from developing countries, collaborative publications with colleagues from developed countries contribute to a large percentage of their research output in the field. This suggests the importance of these types of collaborations as one way to strengthen research capacity in the developing world.

In particular, the report highlights strong connections between African countries and research-intensive regions such as North America and Western Europe.

How much of this collaborative work has followed the agendas and priorities of poor countries is another question that the report opens up for further research.

South-South collaboration

In his message for the UN Day for South-South Cooperation earlier this month, Ban Ki-moon called for accelerating the momentum of development across the global South.

However, there is a long way to go before there is effective research collaboration. 

Our report highlights the limited collaboration among low-income countries in sustainability science. I believe the lack of good infrastructure and human and financial resources is partly to blame. The lack of stable, long-term research policy is another important reason.

A symbolic — and sad — example comes from my own country, Brazil. The report ranks Brazil among the top 15 countries in production of sustainability research. But just this month, the scientific community heard that politicians intend to merge the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation with the Ministry of Education. Rumour also has it that the main science agency (CNPq, the National Council of Research and Development) could be merged with another agency (CAPES, Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education).

Whether or not Brazilian science will survive this ‘science earthquake’ is not yet clear. But these changes are testament to the fact that science capacity in low- and middle-income countries is still built like a sandcastle, without solid foundation. These countries are struggling with the basics and are not always in a position to join international collaborations.

This highlights the role of science communication, and in particular the mass media, for improving South-South collaboration. We know so much more about science in the developed world than in the developing world. If we want science to be at the heart of development — and we do — sustainable science needs to be visible in and across different parts of the world.

Luisa Massarani is the Coordinator of SciDev.Net for Latin America and the Caribbean.