Pressing problems spur radical shift in global science

The focus of global science has radically shifted from basic research to applied research, with high-income countries cutting back on public spending while private sector funding has been maintained or increased, according to the newly-released UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030.

“The debate between quick scientific gains and long-term public investment in basic and high-risk research to enlarge the scope of scientific discoveries has never been so relevant,” Irina Bokova, the UNESCO director-general, said.

But a second interesting trend is that the North-South divide in research and innovation is narrowing, as a large number of countries are incorporating science, technology and innovation in their national development agendas, in order to be less reliant on raw materials and move towards knowledge economies, Bokova said.

Launching the sixth edition of UNESCO’s global science report on November 10 in Paris, the UNESCO director-general said there had been a relentless drive towards innovation to overcome global pandemics, water shortages, food and energy insecurity and climate change, and broad-based North-South and South-South collaboration is increasing to solve such pressing sustainable development challenges.

However, UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 has reminded scientists and researchers worldwide that as they stay in the race for innovation competitiveness, they should not forget that without basic science there would be too little or no science to apply.

Dr Bhanu Neupane, a UNESCO programme specialist and one of the authors of the report, attributed the shift in research priorities towards a big science agenda to the amount of research funds allocated to applied science.

“Researchers are investing more than before in turning a discovery in basic research into a commercially viable and sustainable product or technology with a potentially beneficial socio-economic impact,” Neupane told University World News.

However, highlighting the general trends of world science, the report says the global gross expenditure for research and development increased from US$1,132 billion in 2007 to US$1,478 billion, an increase of more than 30%. “Notably, this was less than the 47% increase recorded over the previous period between 2002 and 2007,” says the report.

In terms of global expenditure on research and development, the United States is way ahead of other countries. According to the report, United States’ spending on research and development rose from US$359.4 billion in 2007 to US$396.7 billion in 2013, representing a 28.1% share of the world’s overall expenditure on research and development.

In this regard, China came second by increasing its research and development budget during the same period from US$116 billion to US$290.1 billion. As of 2013, China’s share of the global expenditure on research and development stood at about 20%.

Japan came third, spending US$141.1 billion on R&D in 2013, up from 139.9 billion in 2007, with a global share of 9.6%. Other countries that invest highly in research include Germany, with a 5.7% global share, South Korea (4.4%), France (3.1%), the United Kingdom (2.5%), Brazil (2.2%) and Russia (1.7%).

Investment gap narrowing

Although the distribution of investment in knowledge remains unequal, the report says there are indicators that the gap is narrowing. “The issue is that the majority of countries now acknowledge the importance of science, technology and innovation and are willing to invest,” the report says.

According to Bokova, the cohort of researchers worldwide increased by 21% between 2007 and last year. “Their number rose from 6.4 million in 2007 to 7.8 million last year,” she said.

The highest concentration of researchers is located in China, which is now home to 1.5 million researchers, or 19.1% of the world’s researchers. According to the report, the number of researchers in China surpassed their counterparts in the United States in 2011. The US currently has 1.3 million, representing 16.7% of the world’s total.

Other countries that have significant numbers of researchers include Japan (661,000), Russia (441,000), Germany (360,000), South Korea (322,000) and the United Kingdom (259, 000).

According to Professor Luc Soete, the rector magnificus of Maastricht University, and Susan Schneegans, the editor of UNESCO’s journal A World of Science, and their associates, who wrote the report’s section on the status of global human capital, the European Union, China, the United States, Japan, and Russia, popularly known as the ‘Big Five’, account for 72% of all researchers.

“The European Union bloc also remains the world leader for the number of researchers, with a 22.2% share,” say the authors of the report. The remarkable growth in researchers is also reflected in the global explosion of scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals. Globally the number of scientific publications rose from slightly over one million in 2008 to 1.3 million in 2014.

Trends in knowledge generation

With respect to the trends in knowledge generation, the European Union bloc is leading the rest of the world with 34% of all scientific publications produced last year.

The United States follows with 25%. Despite these impressive figures, the world share in publications of both the European Union and the United States has dropped marginally over the last five years.

In sharp contrast, China has had a meteoric rise in scientific publications. “Chinese publications almost doubled over the past five years to 20% of the world total,” says the report.

In 2008, Chinese researchers published 102,368 papers and then increased their output to 256,834 last year, which depicted an increase of 151%. During the same period, United States’ publications rose from 289,769 to 321,846 – a marginal increase of 11%.

On China’s surge in generation of knowledge, it is noteworthy that 10 years ago the country accounted for just 5% of global publications. “This rapid growth reflects the coming of age of the Chinese research system, be it in terms of investment, the number of researchers or publications,” says the report.

With respect to patents submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office – USPTO – globally, the number of such patents rose from 157,768 in 2008 to 277,832 in 2013. By submitting 139,139 patents in 2013, United States researchers highly dominated this category by holding 50% of the world share, followed by Japan (19%) and Germany (6.3%).

Women still constitute a minority

Expectedly, women still constitute a minority in the research world as they tend to have more limited access to funding than men. They are also less represented in prestigious universities and among senior faculty, which puts them at a further disadvantage in high-impact publishing.

According to Dr Sophia Huyer, a researcher in a programme of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR, and one of the authors of the report, when it comes to women’s participation in research in most countries, there is a leaky pipeline.

“Women are actively pursuing bachelor and masters degrees and even outnumber men at these levels, since they represent 53% of graduates, but their numbers drop off abruptly at PhD level,” says Huyer. Currently, the share of women at PhD level stands at 43% globally.

Huyer, who is a former executive director at Women in Global Science and Technology, argues that the gap continues to widen, as women represent only 28.4% of the world’s researchers.

According to UNESCO, the regions with the highest share of women researchers are Southeast Europe at 49%, the Caribbean, Central Asia and Latin America at 44% each, while Sub-Saharan Africa counts 30% women and South Asia 17%.

In contrast, Southeast Asia presents a different picture, with women representing 52% of researchers in the Philippines and Thailand, but only 15% in Japan and 18% in South Korea.

Interestingly, in the Arab States 37% of researchers are women, which is a higher proportion than in the European Union that stands at 33%.

Amid efforts to increase the number of women researchers, some countries have put in place policies to reverse this trend. Two years ago, Germany introduced a 30% quota for women on corporate boards of directors including in research institutions.

Japan’s selection criteria for large university grants also seek to increase the representation of women among higher education teaching staff and researchers.

Where to from here?

But even as the world takes stock of the global generation of knowledge in terms of the number of researchers, output of scientific publications and submitted innovation patents, UNESCO is urging countries to rethink what kind of skills, training and talent is required in the 21st century.

UNESCO is also encouraging mobility of scientists and researchers and other skilled personnel in order to increase exchange of ideas and information sharing. Drawing from the Chinese experience, UNESCO partly attributes China’s rise in production of scientific publications to its open door policy of sending over three million students to study overseas.

“Of these, about 1.5 million have returned as seasoned entrepreneurs and professionals taking advantage of the vast opportunities created by China’s rapid economic growth,” says the report.

But as Neupane rightly pointed out, the global research community is no longer pegged on searching for a new element to add to the periodic table or for a molecular base triplet that encodes an amino acid and should be on a calculated mission to overcome global challenges.