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The knowledge divide: Realities and reason

A growing gap in knowledge production exists not only between high-income and other countries but also within the developing world - between a handful of 'emerging' countries, intermediary nations numbering five to 10 on each continent, and a remaining 100 countries whose productivity remains very small (60 countries) or minute (40 countries). Stagnating research means some nations have lost their relative share of global knowledge production - but the burning question for the developing world is one of critical mass and the resources required to maintain scientific quality and build a new generation of scientists.

Falling behind in the research stakes is not peculiar to a specific region, "even if sub-Saharan Africa has gone through more trials and tribulations", or linked to a decline in publication output, write Johann Mouton and Roland Waast in a chapter titled "Comparative Study on National Research Systems: Findings and Lessons" in the Research Report of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge.

The problem is that most developing countries are not keeping up with the growing research output of more industrialised nations.

There are pockets of good science even in countries that are not research-productive. One challenge for them is building up the minimum human and other resources that are essential to a productive and sustainable research system, Mouton and Waast argue. Another is to obtain and analyse the information needed to inform research policies and strategies.

Lack of 'research on research' in most developing countries prompted the UNESCO Forum to commission a study on the research systems of 52 developing countries, to investigate the growing gap in knowledge production between developed and less developed nations, to uncover the roots of and reasons for the inequalities, and to help strengthen research and research capacity in developing nations.

In 2006 Mouton and Waast began a meta-review of existing country studies aimed at describing and evaluating their research systems and ascertaining the quality, reliability, appropriateness and extent of research. Working with colleagues and collaborators in Mexico and India, the authors collected and mapped existing material and undertook studies in Africa and the Arab region before conducting a comparative and integrative review.

The study, say the authors, produced a wealth of reports: four regional compilations - covering 22 African countries, 11 Arab countries, 14 in Latin American and 13 in Asia - as well as four regional reports, a bibliography and a final synthesis report and template.

Inevitably in a review of such scope, some countries or sectors were less well covered than others, especially where no integrated study of the country had been done or comprehensive statistical data produced. However, using information provided by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in Montreal, as well as from own sources, "we were able to compile statistical tables that were as up-to-date and complete as possible." In some of the poorest and smallest countries, data gaps could only be filled through in-country studies, say Mouton and Waast.

The picture that emerged from the UNESCO Forum study is one of uneven research system development in developing countries. Some that used to be referred to as developing nations - such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa - are now described as 'emerging countries' and have relatively strong research systems.

Economic growth since the 1990s has delivered growing social and economic sophistication to several middle-income countries and, Mouton and Waast point out: "There is a clear link between the development of science and industrialisation."

Some emerging economies, such as China and South Korea, have witnessed dramatic increases in scientific output, which has fed into their economic growth, encouraging more research and development investment. It can be said that these countries are in a virtuous cycle of science and growth because, as developed country governments well know, a healthy science sector and a healthy economy go hand in hand.

But many developing countries do not place research at the heart of their economic and social growth strategies. Mouton and Waast raise concerns about the fragility of science sectors in many low-income countries and the importance of improving their capacity and output.

These science-poor countries lack a critical mass of research and development activity that would enable their research systems to become self-sustaining and create a scientific tradition, passing on knowledge and generating studies without the constant intervention of foreign aid.

For this they need a science establishment that includes bodies that perform R&D such as university centres, laboratories and institutes, as well as R&D performing entities outside the higher education sector, such as in the private sector.

"But it also includes scientific publishing houses, journals, conferences, workshops and seminars...and bodies such as technology incubators, technology transfer offices, patenting offices and so on, that promote the utilisation and commercialisation of scientific knowledge," write Mouton and Waast.

Such a nexus of scientists and researchers would be able to sustain national scientific production to ensure that "science is conducted for the public good and that the direction of science is shaped and steered by a nation's most pressing socio-economic needs."

Currently, though, few of these features of modern scientific systems are found in the developing world, especially among the poorest countries. Rather, says the study, many of their scientific institutions are "fragile, susceptible to the vagaries of political and military events, and severely under-resourced.

"They also suffer from a lack of clarity and articulation regarding science governance issues, demonstrated by constant shifts in ministerial responsibility for science. In fact, one could even refer to some of these science systems and their associated institutions as operating in a 'subsistence' mode, where they struggle to even reproduce themselves."

But the authors warn against over-generalisation and over-simplification as there are also some small but robust universities and centres in research-poor countries that have survived political changes and economic fluctuations, where science is supported by government and pockets of significant science are found - such as in Botswana, Burkina Faso and Rwanda.

"In many of these cases, there are also well-established links and collaborative networks, including with strong research establishments elsewhere in the world."

* The complete draft reports of individual countries in the comparative study, as well as four regional reports and a synthesis report, were submitted to UNESCO last year.

* Professor Johann Mouton is Director of the Centre for Research on Science and Technology, and professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. His main research interests are science policy, higher education knowledge production, philosophy and methodology of social research and monitoring and evaluation studies.

* Professor Roland Waast is Emeritus Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Development Studies (IRD) in France. He is the founder of the international network ALFONSO, co-director of the review Science Technology and Society, and an expert for the European Commission.

Click here to download the Unesco Forum Research Report.
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