National roadmaps can help countries to pursue SDGs

There is a need for greater investment in research and development (R&D), including the work done by higher education institutions, as well as for the promotion of science and technology-led innovation ecosystems in the world’s least-developed countries, which should link science, technology and innovation (STI) to socio-economic priorities and sustainable development.

The call for increased investment in R&D, one that is frequently heard at high-level policy discussions, was repeated during a round table discussion on 6 March themed, ‘Leveraging the power of science, technology and innovation for the sustainable development of LDCs’. It was part of the 5th United Nations Conference in Doha, Qatar, on the least-developed countries (LDCs).

It comes against a backdrop in which the state of STI in the least-developed countries appears somewhat gloomy.

“Low levels of investment in research and development, limited supply of skilled labour, low capacity for technological absorption, inadequate knowledge and understanding on intellectual property, know-how and technology transfer, all play a role in the poor state of STI in LDCs,” stated one of the conference’s concept notes.

For example, the ratio of research and development expenditure, as a share of gross domestic product, was a meagre 0.8% or less between 2011 and 2020 in least-developed countries with available data. In comparison, some of the more advanced economies were allocating approximately 3% to innovation.

Citizens of the least-developed countries, comprising both residents and non-residents, filed only 1,536 patents in 2018, up from 960 in 2011, but still inadequate to make a mark on the global radar. Due to limited funding, the scaling of patents limits least-developed countries in taking advantage of their innovations.

The least-developed countries published only 11 journal articles for every 1 million people in 2018, a marginal increase from 6 per million people in 2011. About 60% of scientific literature has been generated in high-income countries.

Other realities in LDCs that affect their performance in STI include the unavailability of relevant skills and state-of-the-art technologies.

A complicating factor is that the world’s least-developed countries find themselves caught up between opportunity and disadvantage.

On the one hand, the digital revolution and other technological changes have increased the use of artificial intelligence, automation, new materials and biotech, big data and offering the prospect of solutions and opportunities for LDCs to achieve sustainable development.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, for instance, has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world, according to the concept note, ‘Propelling LDCs in the Digital Age: A Fourth Industrial Revolution perspective for inclusive and sustainable development’.

However, some of these 4IR developments may impact employment, disadvantaging, especially, low-skilled workers.

“Despite advances in STI, significant gaps remain for bridging the scientific and technological divide between developed countries and LDCs. The highly uneven global distribution of scientific capacity and access to knowledge threatens to derail the 2030 Agenda,” emphasised the concept note.

STI for development

The Doha Programme of Action (DPoA) acknowledges the critical importance that STI, including inclusive and enabling innovation ecosystems, environmentally sound technologies and information communication technology can have in the pursuit of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Thus, the programme of action that emanated from the conference focuses on key STI action areas, including access to modern technologies for sustainable development, building resources that can benefit from the 4IR; STI for the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and building resilience against emerging challenges.

DPoA STI roadmaps for achieving the SDGs and related action plans at national and sub-national levels should be a priority, alongside measures to track progress in terms of national and global development strategies, indicated information issued after the event on 5 March.

National development strategies must also target both basic infrastructure development and human capital accumulation in order to bridge the technology and development divides required to benefit from 4IR.

This is according to the concept note titled, ‘Delivering on the Doha Programme of Action: Innovative partnerships for technology transfer and STI capacity development’.