Mixed success for developing world science, says UNESCO

Developing countries have more than doubled their publication output Copyright: Flickr/Nic's events

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Developing countries more than doubled their output of scientific publications between 2002 and 2008, but their share of patent applications remained extremely low, according to the latest UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) science report.

The developing world’s share of science publications rose from a fifth to nearly a third during this time, according to the ‘UNESCO Science Report 2010: Current Status of Science around the World’.

The report, published today (10 November), assessed the number of publications recorded in Thomson Reuters’ Science Citation Index between 2002 and 2008, during which the total number of global science publications increased by around 35 per cent.

Much of the increase in the developing world is because of the growth of Brazil, China and India. The report found that least developed countries (LDCs), a subset of developing countries, have also increased their publications output — by 80 per cent. But this is from the starting point of 2,000 papers a year, compared with the total developing country output of 165,000 papers, and thus represents only 0.4 per cent of the world’s total output.

Latin America’s share of output rose from just under four to almost five per cent and the report noted that many countries in the region have begun innovation-friendly policies.

In the 22 Pacific island countries and territories, publications increased by 42 per cent between 1998 and 2008. Although S&T is still low on the priority list of policymakers there, said the report, there is a growing regional presence and collaboration on science and technology (S&T).

"This is largely due to common concerns confronting many of the smaller, low-lying Pacific nations such as sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion and the growing frequency of destructive storms." 

Although the number of publications from Sub-Saharan Africa grew by 84 per cent, they still contribute just 0.6 of the world’s production. South Africa and Nigeria are the most prolific countries in the region.

Iran, meanwhile, saw a fivefold increase in output — attributed to the government using oil revenues to expand higher education, in particular graduate studies.

Much of the report deals with spending on science and numbers of researchers, finding that both have increased in developing countries, as SciDev.Net has previously reported.

Another index of scientific output is patents, and the report considered those filed to the US, European and Japanese patent offices between 2002 and 2006.

Developing countries contribute less than five per cent of the global share of patents, with only one patent filed from LDCs in 2006.

"Most of Africa, Asia and Latin America play no role at all [in global share of patents]," says the report, highlighting a lack of interaction between researchers and industry, and between public and private sectors, which is also evident in Arab states.

Anastassios Pouris, director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, told SciDev.Net that the report is likely to have overestimated the increase in developing countries’ share of publications because the citation index expanded in 2008 by 700 journals — mostly from developing countries.

Pouris attributed the low number of patents applied for by African researchers to the high costs of patent applications in the West, and also to researchers’ fears that their technologies would be stolen, with prohibitive costs of court redress.

"I don’t believe that any university in the African continent can afford to protect its intellectual property."

Mohamed Hassan, director of TWAS, The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, said: "The increase in the productivity of peer-reviewed research papers coming from developing countries is very clear but this improvement is confined to a very few countries, such as Brazil, China and Mexico".

A group of least-developed and low-income countries is lagging dangerously behind the rest of the world, he said.

Despite accounting for a quarter of the world’s population, they suffer from bad education systems and a lack of both equipment and skills.

"None of the universities from these countries are among the world’s top 500 universities," Hassan said. "It is astonishing that you have these 80 countries contributing so little knowledge."  

"This disparity in the developing world should be highlighted [better] in such reports."

Link to full ‘UNESCO Science Report 2010: Current Status of Science around the World’  [14MB]