» Pacific islands embracing greater regionalism to accompany rapid change
24.03.2017 - Natural Sciences Sector

Pacific islands embracing greater regionalism to accompany rapid change

© Kanefusa Masuda /ICOMOS, The thatched roof of this traditional Samoan fale (house) withstood Cyclone Evan in December 2012, unlike some modern homes with aluminium roofs.

Between 26 March and 11 April 2017, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, Flavia Schlegel, is visiting Samoa, the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Fiji. High on her agenda will be a ministerial meeting on 29 and 30 March in Apia, Samoa, with representatives of 13 developing Pacific island nations.

She will be officiating over a UNESCO Dialogue with the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) on Science and Science Policy for the Sustainable Development Goals in the subregion. INGSA is chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. During this Dialogue, she will be presenting key findings of the UNESCO Science Report on 29 March.

When the previous edition of the UNESCO Science Report was published in 2010, it found that the lack of national and regional policy frameworks was still a major stumbling block for developing integrated national agendas in Pacific island states. The latest edition of the UNESCO Science Report (2015) notes that the subregion has since moved forward in this regard by establishing a number of regional bodies to address technological issues for sectorial development. None of these agencies has a specific mandate for science and technology policy, however. Examples are the:

  • Secretariat of the Pacific Community for climate change, fisheries and agriculture;
  • Pacific Forum Secretariat for transport and telecommunications; and
  • Secretariat of the Pacific Region Environmental Programme for related issues.

A Pacific–European network to strengthen policy and research

The establishment of the Pacific–Europe Network for Science, Technology and Innovation (PACE-Net Plus) goes some way towards filling the void in science policy, at least temporarily. Funded by the European Commission within its Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Development (2007–2013), this project has spanned the period 2013–2016 and thus overlaps with the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme (2014–2020).

PACE–Net Plus sets out to reinforce the dialogue between the Pacific region and Europe, support biregional research and innovation through calls for research proposals and to promote scientific excellence and industrial and economic competition. Ten of its 16 members come from the Pacific region and the remainder from Europe.

The Pacific partners are the Australian National University, Montroix Pty Ltd (Australia), University of the South Pacific, Institut Malardé in French Caledonia, National Centre for Technological Research into Nickel and its Environment in New Caledonia, South Pacific Community, Landcare Research Ltd in New Zealand, University of Papua New Guinea, Samoa National University and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

The other six partners are: the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Institut de recherche pour le développement in France, the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States and the European Union, the Sociedade Portuguesa de Inovação, United Nations Industrial Development Organization and Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Ecology in Germany.

PACE-Net Plus focuses on three societal challenges:

  • Health, demographic change and well-being;
  • Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bio-economy; and
  • Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials.

A conference held in Suva (Fiji) in 2012 under the umbrella of PACE–Net Plus produced recommendations for a strategic plan for research, innovation and development in the Pacific. The conference report published in 2013 identified research needs in the Pacific in seven areas: health; agriculture and forestry; fisheries and aquaculture; biodiversity and ecosystem management; freshwater; natural hazards; and energy.

The conference also established the Pacific Islands University Research Network to support knowledge creation and sharing and to prepare succinct recommendations for the development of a regional policy framework for science, technology and innovation. This formal research network complements the Fiji-based University of the South Pacific, which has campuses in other Pacific Island countries.

Importance of data to inform policy

It was intended for the policy role of the Pacific Islands University Research Network to be informed by evidence gleaned from measuring capability in science, technology and innovation but the absence of data presents a formidable barrier. As of 2015, only Fiji had recent data on expenditure on research and development (R&D), which it calculated at 0.15% of GDP in 2012. In October 2017, Samoa formed a broad-based working group to begin drafting a national science, technology and innovation policy.

Without relevant data, it will be difficult for developing Pacific Island states to monitor their progress towards Sustainable Development target 9.5, namely: Enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, in particular developing countries, including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and substantially increasing the number of research and development workers per 1 million people and public and private research and development spending.

Industrial sectors with potential for development

The UNESCO Science Report observes that ‘Pacific Island economies are mostly dependent on natural resources, with a tiny manufacturing sector and no heavy industry’. Moreover, ‘the trade balance is currently more skewed towards imports than exports, with the exception of Papua New Guinea, which has a mining industry’.

Forestry is an important industry for both Fiji and Papua New Guinea, for instance, but it uses low and semi-intensive technological inputs. As a result, only a few limited finished products are exported. There is a need to adopt automated machinery and design in forestry and to improve training, in order to add value to exports.

In addition to forestry, fisheries and agriculture are key economic sectors in Fiji. The government plans to diversify the fisheries sector to ensure it remains sustainable. This is fuelling a drive to use science and technology to make the transition to value-added production. The fisheries sector in Fiji is currently dominated by the catch of tuna for the Japanese market. The Fijian government is offering incentives and concessions to encourage the private sector to invest in aquaculture, inshore fisheries and offshore fish products such as sunfish and deep-water snapper.

In agriculture, Fiji is shifting away from subsistence agriculture towards commercial agriculture and agro-processing of root crops, tropical fruits, vegetables, spices, horticulture and livestock.

Fiji also plans to become a Pacific hub for ICT support services. Relative to many other South Pacific Islands, Fiji has a fairly reliable telecommunications system with access to the Southern Cross submarine cable linking New Zealand, Australia and North America. A recent move to establish the University of the South Pacific Stathan ICT Park, the Kalabo ICT economic zone and the ATH technology park in Fiji should support this ambition.

A subregional approach to improving climate resilience

During her mission, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Natural Sciences will also be meeting with the Prime Minister of Fiji, Mr Voreqe Bainimarama, on 11 April. Fiji will be presiding the 23rd meeting of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP 23) in November this year. For the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015), ‘climate change seems to be the most pressing environmental issue for developing Pacific island countries, as it is already affecting almost all socio-economic sectors. The consequences of climate change can be seen in agriculture, food security, forestry and even in the spread of communicable diseases’. Rising sea levels are increasing the salinity of soils and groundwater, for instance, threatening agriculture and freshwater supplies, even as many island populations are growing and urbanizing.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community has initiated several activities to tackle problems associated with climate change. These cover a great variety of areas, including fisheries, freshwater, agriculture, coastal zone management, disaster management, energy, traditional knowledge, education, forestry, communication, tourism, culture, health, weather, gender implications and biodiversity. Almost all Pacific Island countries are involved in one or more of these activities.

The first major scheme focusing on adaptation to climate change and climate variability dates back to 2009. Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change involves 13 Pacific Island nations, with international funding from the Global Environment Facility, as well as from the US and Australian governments.

Several projects fostering greater eocystem resilience to climate change are also being co-ordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme, wthin the Secretariat of the Pacific Region Environmental Programme.

In February 2014, the European Union and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat signed an agreement for a programme on Adapting to Climate Change and Sustainable Energy worth €37.3 million which will benefit 15 Pacific Island states. These are the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The Pacific Island nations were among the first to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change. Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Samoa and Tuvalu all ratified the agreement in April 2016 and the following countries in September and October the same year: Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Renewable energy taking hold

The development of sustainable energy offers numerous advantages for the vast, fragmented territories of Pacific island nations. On average, countries set aside 10% of GDP to fund imports of petroleum products but this figure can exceed 30% in some cases. In addition to high fuel transportation costs, this reliance on fossil fuels leaves Pacific economies vulnerable to volatile global fuel prices and potential spills by oil tankers.

Consequently, many Pacific Island countries are investing in renewable energy. In Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu, renewable energy sources already represent significant shares of the total electricity supply: 60%, 66%, 37% and 15% respectively. Tokelau has even become the first country in the world to generate 100% of its electricity using renewable sources.

According to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, renewable energy still represented less than 10% of total energy use in the 22 Pacific Island countries and territories in 2015. The regional body observed that, 'while Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa are leading the way with large-scale hydropower projects, there is enormous potential to expand the deployment of other renewable energy options such as solar, wind, geothermal and ocean-based energy sources'.

International development partners are participating in several projects to develop renewable energy in the Pacific island states. In April 2014, Pacific Ministers for Energy and Transport agreed to establish the Pacific Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, 'a first for the Pacific'. The centre will be part of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization’s network of regional Sustainable Energy for All Centres of Excellence(1).

Since 2013, the European Union has funded the Renewable Energy in Pacific Island Countries Developing Skills and Capacity programme (EPIC). EPIC has developed two master’s programmes in renewable energy management and helped to establish two Centres of Renewable Energy, one at the University of Papua New Guinea and the other at the University of Fiji. Both centres became operational in 2014 and aim to create a regional knowledge hub for the development of renewable energy.

High international collaboration rates a double-edged sword

In order to tackle local problems effectively, countries are seeking ways to link their national knowledge base to regional and global advances in science. More than three-quarters of articles published by scientists from Pacific Island nations between 2008 and 2014 were signed by international collaborators, according to Thomson Reuters' Web of Science (Science Citation Index Expanded). The rate of international collaboration was high in the larger countries of Fiji (83%), Papua New Guinea (90%) and Vanuatu (95%) and even attained 100% in some of the smaller island states, such as in the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Tonga and Tuvalu.

All of these countries count North American scientists among their top five partners. Many also collaborate closely with scientists from Australia and Europe. Some Pacific Island states also count one another among their closest scientific collaborators, as in the case of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

One motivation for this greater interconnectedness is the region’s vulnerability to geohazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis – the Pacific Rim is not known as the Ring of Fire for nothing. In 2009, Samoa and Tonga were affected by a submarine earthquake of a magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter Scale, the strongest earthquake recorded that year. The subsequent tsunami caused substantial damage and loss of life in both countries.

Between 2002 and 2014, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu published the greatest number of articles in geosciences: 126, 86 and 37 respectively. In Papua New Guinea, half of these articles were produced after 2007 but in Fiji, the figure was 67% and, in Vanuatu 76%, suggesting a growing interest in this field. In Samoa and Tonga, on the other hand, only one and three articles had been published in geosciences five years after the 2009 earthquake.

The high rate of international co-authorship in developing Pacific island states can be a double-edged sword. According to the Fijian Ministry of Health, research collaboration often results in an article being published in a reputed journal but gives very little back in terms of strengthening health in Fiji. A new set of guidelines are now in place in Fiji to help build endogenous capacity in health research through training and access to new technology. The new policy guidelines require that all research projects initiated in Fiji with external bodies demonstrate how the project will contribute to local capacity-building in health research.

Local journals to nurture endogenous research

In 2012, the Fijian Ministry of Health launched the Fiji Journal of Public Health, in an attempt to develop endogenous research capacity. In parallel, the Ministry of Agriculture revived Fiji’s Agricultural Journal in 2013, which had been dormant for 17 years. Between 2008 and 2014, agriculture accounted for only 11 out of Fiji's 460 articles catalogued in Thomson Reuters' Web of Science, compared to 72 for health.

Two regional journals were also launched in 2009 to provide a focus for Pacific scientific research, the Samoan Medical Journal and the Papua New Guinea Journal of Research, Science and Technology.

(1) Pacific-first centre of excellence for renewable energy and energy efficiency takes shape. Secretariat of Pacific Community press release. 18 June 2015.

Source: adapted from UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015), pp. 724-729; source of publications data: Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, Science Citation Index Expanded, data treatment by Science-Metrix.

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