The spending on science has gone up across the world in recent times but there is still a long way to go before it fully contributes to the goal of achieving a more sustainable future for all the people and the planet. This underlines the core of the latest Science Report by UNESCO.
The Race Against Time For Smarter Development report published on June 11, 2021 recommends greater investment in the face of growing crises across the world. The UNESCO publishes science reports once in five years.
Stating that better endowed science was indispensable, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay pointed out that science must become less unequal, more cooperative and more open. “Today’s challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, decline of ocean health and pandemics are all global. This is why we must mobilize scientists and researchers from all over the world,” she said.
MORE SCIENTISTS, SIGNIFICANT DISPARITIES
The report says that spending on science worldwide increased by nearly 20 per cent between 2014 and 2018. It also says that the number of scientists rose about 13.7 per cent. The Covid Pandemic boosted further this trend, the report added.
However, the report notes significant disparities, as just two countries – the United States and China – accounted for nearly two-thirds of this increase, or roughly 63 per cent.
Though the world saw much advancement in science, UNESCO says that research in areas critical to common global future like carbon capture and storage received less investment. Furthermore, although international scientific cooperation has increased over the past five years, open access to research remains a challenge in much of the world, as more than 70 per cent of publications remain largely inaccessible to the majority of researchers, the UNESCO said in the report.
The report called for new models for circulation and dissemination of scientific knowledge, an issue the UN Agency has been working on since 2019.
SCIENCE AND THE PANDEMIC
The Science Report says that several countries turned to science after the pandemic started. The report says that several countries established ad hoc scientific committees to manage the crisis. It said that Covid 19 pandemic demonstrated the value of digital technologies in an emergency. For example, Brazil called upon 140 telemedicine and e-health centres during the pandemic to provide virtual consultations and remote monitoring of health of patients. Several countries also shifted their education system to online learning.
Apart from this, the report notes the advance of robots and drones during the pandemic. Several countries deployed robots and drones to help curb the spread of Covid-19. For instance, Saudi Arabia deployed drones in some markets to identify people with a high body temperature.
Apart from this, Covid19 pandemic energised knowledge systems across nations. Several countries accelerated their approval processes for research project proposals. The United States saw an unprecedented mobilisation of bioscience industry. By mid-2020, the US witnessed more than 400 drug programmes aimed at eradicating the disease. These efforts were rooted in the White House’s Operation Warp Speed, a public–private partnership that saw around nine billion dollars allocated to developing and manufacturing candidate vaccines, including through advance purchase agreements, the report said. Another instance mentioned in the report is that of the National Council for Scientific Research of Lebanon. The council issued a Flash Call for Covid-19 Management as early as March 2020, which led to the acceptance of 29 research projects addressing topics related to vaccination. Other countries also followed.
The Science Report says that more than 30 countries adopted dedicated strategies for AI between 2016 and 2020. The report quotes the words of Russian president Vladimir Putin who stated in 2017, “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world”. In the report, the UNESCO points that China aims to be ‘the world’s primary centre for innovation in AI by 2030 according to its New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. China is already the world’s biggest owner of AI patents but lackstop-tier talent in this field.
The US government’s 2020 research budget proposal for 2021 included major increases for quantum information science and AI as part of its goal of doubling investment in research in these two areas by 2022, the report stated.
The UNESCO science report states that renewable energy was the only energy sector to see growth at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also points out that the growing demand. The report points out that several countries are abandoning hydropower projects because of unreliable rainfall (Sri Lanka and Zambia) or safety concerns.
SCIENCE SYNONYMOUS WITH MODERNITY
The Science report mentions that science, technology and innovation have become synonymous with economic competitiveness and modernity over the past five years. This comes after developing countries sought to diversify their economies and make them more knowledge-intensive. It says that this trend was quite visible in the United Arab Emirates’ space programme, which launched the Hope probe towards Mars in July 2020, just six years after the birth of the national space agency.
It also mentions of UAE as one of 32 countries, which boosted growth in global research expenditure between 2014 and 2018. Without China, growth in research expenditure between 2014 and 2018 (13.6%) would still have outpaced economic growth (12.0%) but by a much smaller margin, the report said. The second-biggest contribution to growth in global research expenditure came from the USA (19.4%), followed by the EU (11.0%). The Republic of Korea (4.7%) and India (3.8%) also made sizeable contributions, the report stated.
2019 marked a peak in global investment in the space economy and was witness to a spurt in public private partnership. In investment, the United States accounted for 55 per cent, UK 24 per cent, France seven per cent and China five per cent. Increasingly, the US National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) is tasking commercial partners with developing the space economy, in order to leave the agency free to focus its own resources on deep space exploration, the report said.
The Science report points out that researcher pool grew three times faster, about 13.7 per cent, during 2014- 2018 period. In 2018, China accounted for 21.1 per cent of all global researchers, just behind EU’s 23.5 per cent. The United States contributed 16.2 per cent.
UNESCO says that Low-income economies witnessed the fastest growth (+36 per cent) in researcher density since 2014 but still account for only 0.2 per cent of the world’s researchers. Developing countries such as Jordan, Mauritius, Iran and Ethiopia witnessed a fast growing trend, the report says. In 2014, Latin America crossed the symbolic threshold of counting one researcher per 1 000 labour force. Argentina had the largest proportion of researchers (2.91), followed by Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay.
SHAPING TOMORROW’S WORLD
The report stresses that science needs to become more diverse. UNESCO said “we cannot allow the inequalities of society be reproduced, or amplified, by the science of the future.” The report further urges restoration of public confidence in science, reminding, “today’s science contributes to shaping the world of tomorrow, which is why it is essential to prioritize humanity’s common goal of sustainability through ambitious science policy.”
AT A GLANCE
- Development priorities have aligned over the past five years, with countries of all income levels prioritizing their transition to digital and ‘green’ economies.
- To accelerate this transition, governments are designing new policy tools to facilitate technology transfer to industry.
- Yet, eight out of ten countries still devote less than 1% of GDP to research; they remain largely recipients of foreign scientific expertise and technology.
- Although countries are investing more in green tech, sustainability science is not yet mainstream at the global level, according to a UNESCO study.
- All governments need to ensure that policies and resources for their dual transition point in the same direction across different economic sectors, towards the same strategic goal of sustainable development.
- The Covid-19 pandemic has energized knowledge production systems.
- Among innovation leaders, the evolving geopolitical landscape and pandemic have stirred debate on how to safeguard strategic interests in trade and technology.