Vulnerable countries lead by example in research on the Sustainable Development Goals
With the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, world leaders pledged to end poverty and hunger, protect biodiversity and the climate, and get all children to school by 2030. How researchers and have donors reacted? Has there been a change in research priorities?
The Paris-based United Nations agency for science and education has answers to these and other questions in the latest UNESCO Science Report, published last month (see go.nature.com/3zlojva). UNESCO says the 700-page report is a first attempt to understand the impact of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on research priorities. The results are a mixed picture.
Using the Scopus database, UNESCO mapped publications from nearly 200 countries between 2011 and 2019 on 56 research topics relevant to the SDGs. For the most part, the high-income countries that account for 64% of global research spending – including Japan, South Korea, the United States and many European countries – showed relatively little change in the number of publications produced. on the SDGs, and a declining share of global research.
But that’s another story for low- and middle-income countries, which have started to shift their research priorities toward goals.
For example, the share of PV publications – which could address the SDG on boosting renewable energy – from low-income and lower-middle-income countries has more than tripled, from 6.2% to 22% of the world total during the study period. . The share of articles on biofuels and biomass almost tripled, from 8.5% to 23%.
Low-income countries more than doubled their share of research publications on the crops most resilient to climate change, from 5% of the total to 11%. And researchers from sub-Saharan Africa contributed 361 out of 885 publications on peasant agriculture in 2019, more than the 294 in the European Union. Ecuador, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Russia and Vietnam have all increased production on most subjects, although from weak starting points in some cases.
Much of the growth is fueled by China. According to UNESCO, Chinese researchers now publish about half of global production on battery efficiency, 43% on hydrogen energy and 41% on carbon pricing. Their research on carbon capture and storage has grown from 1,300 publications between 2012 and 2015 to 2,049 in 2016-2019. In contrast, high-income countries – including France, Germany and the United States – posted declining shares over the same period, and some showed declining numbers. An exception is research on floating marine plastics. The domain, which barely existed a decade ago, recorded 853 posts in 2019, mostly from high-income countries. But, overall, the richest countries reported a decline in their publishing share in 54 of the 56 areas assessed.
It is disappointing to see so little progress on the part of the richer countries. But it’s kind of a model. UNESCO researchers calculated that between 2000 and 2013, rich countries spent less than US $ 25 billion on international development assistance in environmental areas such as climate change and biodiversity, or about a fifth of 130 billion dollars allocated to aid industry and innovation.
At the same time, it is heartwarming to see the slow revival of scientific output in many low-income countries, some of which were once engines of scholarship. But UNESCO also finds that funding trends in these countries have become more difficult to follow. Some 98 countries reported funding data in 2015, but this figure fell to 68 in 2018. Some 28% of high-income countries and 78% of low- and middle-income countries do not report their science funding data – and this is both problematic and disturbing. The ability to correlate funding data with publication information would provide a richer picture of earnings and identify areas that would benefit from more resources. Countries must comply with UNESCO’s requests for information, in part because they are obligated to track this data for the SDGs.
Even before the pandemic, the world was not on track to meet most of the Sustainable Development Goals. With less than a decade to go to the 2030 deadline to end poverty and protect the environment, the UNESCO report rightly says the world is “running out of time.” The report should be read carefully in all the capitals of the world. It’s not yet too late for everyone to pivot science to sustainability.