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The race against time for smarter development (chapter 1)

It is striking how development priorities have aligned over the past five years. Countries of all income levels are prioritizing their transition to digital and ‘green’ economies, in parallel. This dual transition reflects a double imperative. On the one hand, the clock is ticking for countries to reach their Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. On the other, countries are convinced that their future economic competitiveness will depend upon how quickly they transition to digital societies. The UNESCO Science Report’s subtitle, ‘the race against time for smarter development’, is an allusion to these twin priorities. 

This seventh edition of the report monitors the development path that countries have been following over the past five years from the perspective of science governance. It documents the rapid societal transformation under way, which offers new opportunities for social and economic experimentation but also risks exacerbating social inequalities, unless safeguards are put in place. 

See figure 1.2

The report concludes that countries will need to invest more in research and innovation, if they are to succeed in their dual digital and green transition. More than 30 countries have already raised their research spending since 2014, in line with their commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. Despite this progress, eight out of ten countries still devote less than 1% of GDP to research, perpetuating their dependence on foreign technologies. 

Since the private sector will need to drive much of this dual green and digital transition, governments have been striving to make it easier for the private sector to innovate through novel policy instruments such as digital innovation hubs where companies can ‘test before they invest’ in digital technologies. Some governments are also seeking to improve the status of researchers through pay rises and other means. The global researcher population has surged since 2014. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has energized knowledge production systems. This dynamic builds on the trend towards greater international scientific collaboration, which bodes well for tackling other global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Nevertheless, sustainability research is not yet mainstream in academic publishing, according to a new UNESCO study, even though countries are investing more than before in green technologies. 

The race against time for smarter development (research spending)

According to the UNESCO Science Report, released on 11 June 2021, global spending on research grew faster than the global economy between 2014 and 2018. However, growth has been uneven around the world.   

Countries have embarked upon a transition to green, digital economies. This transformation will take creativity and innovation – which is why it will be so important for them to invest more, and more strategically, in research.  

What is your country doing to nurture science and innovation?   

Government expenditure on research and development Radial

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  • Figure 1.1: Global shares of GDP, research spending, researchers, publications and patents for the G20, 2014 and 2018 or closest years (%) 
  • Figure 1.2: Investment in research and development as a share of GDP, by region and selected country, 2014 and 2018 (%) 
  • Figure 1.3: Researchers (FTE) per million inhabitants, by region and selected country, 2014 and 2018 
  • Figure 1.4: International scientific co-authorship, by region and selected country, 2015 and 2019 
  • Figure 1.5: Scientific publications by cross-cutting strategic technology, 2018–2019 
  • Figure 1.6: Share of global publications on selected cross-cutting strategic technologies among the G20, 2015 and 2019 (%) 
  • Figure 1.7: Heatmap showing change in scientific publishing on 56 topics related to the Sustainable Development Goals, 2012–2019 
  • Figure 1.8: Trends in research expenditure 
  • Figure 1.9: Global trends in researchers (FTE) 
  • Figure 1.10: Share of global IP5 patents, 2015 and 2019 (%) 
  • Figure 1.11: Mutually reinforcing effect on patenting of strong research investment by government and industry, 2018 or closest year 
  • Figure 1.12: Global trends in scientific publishing 
  • Figure 1.13: Trends in scientific publishing on artificial intelligence and robotics 
  • Figure 1.14: Trends in scientific publishing on energy 
  • Figure 1.15: Trends in scientific publishing on materials science 
  • Figure 1.16: Share of scientific publications involving international collaboration by broad field, 2014–2016 and 2017–2019 (%) 
  • Box 1.1: Data gaps impeding monitoring of Sustainable Development Goals