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UNESCO is preparing a tool to help evaluate how research is generated, disseminated, received and used in developing countries.

The aim is to provide a detailed picture of research systems in low- and middle-income countries, allowing policymakers to evaluate and compare their country's research performance with others of a similar profile.

"It's very important that people know what is going on in countries of similar scale, and learn from that," says Marie-Louise Kearney, director of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge.   

A template of indicators was presented at a symposium for research policy experts in Paris, France, last week (16–18 January). These should allow countries to set benchmarks for progress in building their research systems.

The template consists of nine indicators: political, economic, the educational and social context of science, history of science, policies, research and development performers, the science community, human resources, funding, research output and scientific cooperation and agreements.

"Some of the indicators are very straightforward and quantitative, like the number of universities, graduates, the percentage of PhDs in the population and so on," says Kearney.

"But others are more abstract, such as those assessing informal structures like academies of science, and measuring how active and influential the science community is in a country."

Johann Mouton from the Centre for Research on Science and Technology at the University of Stellenbosh, South Africa, says standard indicators exist for industrialised countries, but these are tailored for highly structured, well-articulated systems.

"As very few of these conditions apply to [of developing countries], it is not surprising that many of the existing indicators do not manage to capture the contextuality, specificity and dynamics of [developing countries]."

The initiative is based on 52 surveys investigating research systems in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East, presented at the symposium.

The surveys highlighted problems that need to be addressed; for example, in Cameroon, a lot of research is funded by foreign institutions, hindering the capacity to research local needs. Sri Lanka produces numerous skilled workers but has difficulties providing the working conditions to keep them.

Mouton says other issues include a trend towards de-institutionalisation of science, the 'assemblage-like' character of scientific arrangements and the 'invisibility' of science produced in many of these countries.

The final version of the indicators will be launched in May.

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