Developing nations urged to spend big on science

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Copyright: Stuart Freedman/Panos

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  • Countries need ‘ambitious’ spending to implement SDGs
  • A few nations invest up to 3.5 per cent of GDP on R&D
  • But budget limits may scupper such spending targets

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Developing countries must set “ambitious” science spending goals as part of efforts to implement the next batch of global development targets, say advisors to the UN chief.

Science, technology and innovation (STI) can be a “game changer” for development efforts, the UN secretary-general’s Scientific Advisory Board says in recommendations presented last week (9 July) in New York, United States.

The board, set up in 2013 to advise Ban Ki-moon on sustainable development, focuses on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Closing the development gap will depend on closing the existing STI investment gaps,” the advisors write. They add that, although many governments perceive a target of spending one per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development (R&D) as being high, countries with strong and effective science, technology and innovation systems invest up to 3.5 per cent of their GDP in R&D.

Only a handful of countries have reached this figure, including Finland and South Korea (see graph).

Zakri Abdul Hamid, a board member, gives the examples of Germany, Japan and South Korea, which, he says, upped their science investment to boost economic recovery after the devastation of the Second World War.

But Rafael Palacios Bustamante, a Venezuelan sociologist who specialises in science and innovation policy in Latin America, says this comparison is inappropriate.

“The gap between developing and industrialised countries is much bigger now and our dependence on technology has become more radical,” he says. Industrialised countries have been able to digest rapid technological changes in past decades, but developing countries are lagging behind.

The 3.5 per cent figure is an unrealistic target, Palacios tells SciDev.Net, not only because of financial constraints, but also because developing countries lack the long-term policies and institutions, both public and private, needed to produce and make use of knowledge.

But Zakri, who is also science advisor to the prime minister of his country, Malaysia, says the board understands that 3.5 per cent of GDP is not an attainable spending goal for developing countries. “Of course, there are other pressing matters that countries need to take care of, like poverty alleviation,” he says. But “if countries want to move forward, they must invest in R&D”.

The advisors write that science can also help design and implement the SDGs, and monitor progress towards them.

In a separate policy brief, they call for a “seat for science” on the High-Level Political Forum that deals with the UN’s sustainable development agenda, to ensure that “science is not just an observer but an advisor to policymakers”.

The advisory board, along with other bodies such as national science academies and the International Council for Science, could also help review pending policy decisions against scientific evidence, they suggest.

“For a long time, science was on the back burner of socioeconomic development,” Zakri says. “When you see the effectiveness of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] alerting policymakers towards the problems of climate change, you realise that science has a lot to offer.”

The board comprises 26 scientists from engineering, natural and social sciences and is hosted by UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).


[1] Scientific Advisory Board of the Secretary-General of the UN Science, technology and innovation: critical means of implementation for the SDGs (UNESCO, 9 July 2015)
[2] Scientific Advisory Board of the Secretary-General of the UN Strengthening the High-Level Political Forum and the UN Global Sustainable Development Report (UNESCO, 9 July 2015)