Big five still dominate in share of world’s researchers

The number of researchers has risen by 21% to 7.8 million since 2007 with a corresponding explosion in scientific publications, according to the newly-released UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030. But 72% of the world’s researchers can still be found in the European Union, China, Russia, the United States and Japan.

The European Union remained world leader with a 22.2% share of researchers, but since 2011 China (19.1%) has overtaken the US (16.7%), as predicted in the UNESCO Science Report 2010.

Japan's world share shrunk to 8.5% in 2013 – it was 10.7% in 2007 – and Russia's share to 5.7% (from 7.3%).

Significantly, high-income countries ceded ground to the upper middle-income countries – including China, which grew 2.5% between 2009 and 2013 – with the report reflecting that once countries boosted their investment in research personnel and publicly funded research, business also raised its research and development, or R&D, investments.

"Public and privately funded research have different aims, but their contribution to growth depends on how well they complement one another... the relationship becomes powerful above a certain threshold in researcher density and publicly funded R&D intensity," the report said.

Increasing mobility of doctoral students is driving the mobility of scientists, the report said.

Also evident was that researchers from lower-income countries had a widening choice on where to pursue their international careers – with even countries "suffering from brain drain attracting researchers".

The National Research Centre indicated Sudan lost more than 3,000 researchers to migration between 2002 and 2014 with people drawn to neighbouring states Eritrea and Ethiopia by salaries more than double those in their home country.

However, Sudan also became a refuge for Arab world students and was attracting a growing number of African students.

The role of the diaspora

Inherent in the research was the role the diaspora – the movement of populations from their original homelands – was playing in scientific mobility. While new technologies, including the Internet, had opened up possibilities for virtual mobility, physical movement remained crucial to cross-fertilise scientific discoveries.

"Diaspora knowledge networks can transform the local and international environment for innovation," the report said.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Korean and Taiwanese populations left California's Silicon Valley to establish their own science parks, while since 1991 the Colombian network of scientists and engineers abroad had reconnected expatriates.

The report highlighted a more recent case study concerning the Indian diaspora's role in the country's information technology, or IT, industry, a segment that contributed 7.5% towards gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012. A 2012 survey showed 12 of the top 20 Indian IT companies have expatriates as founders, co-founders, chief executive officers or managing directors.

"International scientific collaboration is invaluable for tracking global scientific issues... it has also been widely used for helping universities improve the quality and quantity of their research output," the report stated.

Consequently, governments promoted scientific mobility to build their research capacity or maintain innovative environments. UNESCO predicted the competition for skilled workers from a global pool would intensify, depending on the investment levels into science and technology and demographics like low birth rates and aging populations.

Countries were formulating broader policies to attract and retain highly skilled migrants and international students.

In 2011 Brazil launched the Science without Borders programme to consolidate and expand the national innovation system via international exchanges – and in three years awarded 100,000 scholarships to talented Brazilian students and researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the world's top universities.

Now the country with the largest number of students living abroad, China has seen a shift in its scientific mobility policy. The report highlighted the extent to which the government had previously fretted about a brain drain and in 1992 began encouraging internationally based students to return for short visits to mainland China.

In 2001 the government adopted a liberalised policy inviting the diaspora to contribute to modernising China without obligations to return, while the report said in the past decade the government's ambition to increase its world-class universities has spawned a rash of sponsorships for international study. These rose to 13,000 in 2010, compared to less than 3,000 in 2003.

Doctoral mobility

The report cited several mobility trends among doctoral level international students and those in science and engineering programmes, the most popular education programmes and a shift from social sciences and business.

There was now a concentration of international doctoral students in fewer countries with the US (40.1%), the UK (10.8%) and France (8.3%) hosting the bulk.

However, the proportion of doctoral students pursuing degrees abroad varied significantly between countries with only 1.7% of US students studying outside the country, but 109.3% in Saudi Arabia. This meant the Arab country had more doctoral students studying abroad than in its own universities.

There were also noticeable networks of international student mobility whereby bilateral ties via geography, language and history shaped the movement.

A survey among doctorate holders revealed between 5% and 29% had gained international research experience in the past decade. In Hungary, Malta and Spain, the proportion exceeded 20%, while Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden were below 10%.

"The high level of mobility by qualified personnel contributes to the overall professionalism of the labour force and the innovative performance of the economy. The presence of foreign doctorate holders and researchers has long been acknowledged as adding cultural capital to the local community and expanding the talent pool," the report stated.

Rising gender barrier

However, a less favourable element was the diminishing role of women in research. While women accounted for 53% of bachelor and masters degrees, their numbers declined at PhD levels with there being 57% men.

By researcher level, this had risen to 72% with the report concluding that the high proportion of women in tertiary education was not translating into a greater presence in research.

While accounting for 28% of global researchers, the statistics were increasingly skewed by region. Women were highly represented in South East Europe (49%) and the Caribbean, Central Asia and Latin America (44%).

One in three researchers were women in the Arab States (37%), EU (33%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (30%), while Bolivia (63%) and Venezuela (56%) topped the global statistics. However, France, Germany and the Netherlands had statistics around 25%, the Republic of Korea 18% and Japan 15%.

Saudi Arabia was now the lowest at 1.4% despite being 18.1% in 2000.

"Gender equality will encourage new solutions and expand the scope of research. This should be considered a priority if the global community is serious about reaching the next set of development goals," the report concluded.