Presentation of UNESCO Science Report in Moscow

The UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 was presented to Russian and foreign experts by the Editor-in-Chief, Susan Schneegans, on 21 April 2016, at the XVIIth Annual Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development (see the programme). The conference was organized by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, a highly reputed national research university offering degree courses to PhD level. Staff and students attended the conference.

Ms Schneegans’ presentation focused on global trends and best practices in science, technology and innovation policy.  One of the report’s key messages is that, despite the economic and financial crisis of 2008–2009, expenditure on research and development (R&D) rose by 30.5% between 2007 and 2013, more than global gross domestic product (up 20.1%). There has been a convergence in the level of public commitment to R&D in the past five years. With public budgets under pressure since 2008, wealthy countries have cut back their commitment to R&D. In parallel, lower income countries have used the commodities boom to step up their own commitment to research. A growing number of developing countries – and oil-rent economies – realize that their plans to diversify and modernize the economy will be thwarted, if they cannot call upon a critical mass of skilled personnel to drive an economy that is less reliant on raw materials and more rooted in knowledge.  

The growing convergence in public commitment to R&D is not yet visible in the global data because the business sector in industrial countries maintained or increased its own spending on R&D, despite the crisis. In 2012, the Triad (European Union, Japan and USA) still dominated patenting, although China and the Republic of Korea together accounted for more than 9% of triadic patents, almost three times their world share in 2002. Together, the Big Five hold nine out of ten triadic patents in the world.

Although the G20 still accounts for two-thirds of the global population and nine-tenths of research expenditure, researchers and scientific publications, the steep rise of the Republic of Korea and, in particular China, has reshuffled the cards. China has moved up to second place behind the USA for global research spending, after doubling its share to almost 20% between 2007 and 2013. This has caused the world shares of some developed countries to drop, including those of Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, UK and USA.

The number of researchers worldwide progressed by 21% between 2007 and 2013 and that of scientific publications by 23% (2008-2014). The growth rate was highest in upper middle-income (95%) and low-income (68%) countries. We are witnessing an ongoing process of ‘multipolarization’ of scientific production. Scientists are not only publishing more in internationally catalogued journals but also co-authoring a greater share of papers with foreign partners. In low-income countries, 80-100% of articles have a foreign co-author, compared to 24% on average among the G20 and 29% among OECD countries.  Thanks in part to international collaboration, low-income countries increased their share of global publications by 68% between 2008 and 2014.

Overall, the years 2009–2014 have been a difficult transition period for industrial countries, which have had to conjugate a severe debt crisis. Many are in search of an effective growth strategy. In order to accelerate economic growth and productivity, some have been tempted to divert public research budgets towards the commercialization end of the innovation cycle, as in Australia and Canada. The risk is that this will penalize basic research and public good science. Switzerland has managed to balance this equation: it is a global leader in innovation but also devotes about 30% of R&D expenditure to basic research. 

Part of Switzerland’s success lies in its ability to attract international talent to its universities and private sector. One of the key trends identified by the report is the growing international market for scientists, engineers and university students, who have never been so mobile. Governments themselves are encouraging this trend, such as through the European Union’s ‘scientific visa’ for non-EU job applicants or Brazil’s Science without Borders programme. A growing number of private firms are also relocating their research laboratories abroad and thereby also part of their personnel. Studies conducted across Europe have shown that a high level of mobility by qualified personnel between sectors (such as universities and industries) and across countries contributes to the overall professionalism of the labour force and innovative performance of the economy.

Even countries that are doing well, such as Israel and the Republic of Korea, which commit more to R&D than any other (more than 4% of GDP), fret over how to maintain their edge in increasingly competitive markets. Israel faces the dilemma of how to prepare its universities for tomorrow’s science-based industries, after having relied for 50 years on the defence sector to develop the high-tech information technology and electronics industries that drive its economy. The next wave of technologies will come from disciplines that are rooted in the basic research laboratories of universities, rather than in defence industries, argues the report.

The Republic of Korea is undergoing a sweeping transformation. Sensing that its development model is no longer adapted to evolving markets, it has embraced ‘low carbon, green growth’ and, under the current government, is striving to develop a more entrepreneurial, creative culture. One of the main thrusts of this policy is the development of linkages between basic science and business. The new International Science Business Belt, for instance – the Korean Silicon Valley – houses a National Institute for Basic Research and, in the near future, a heavy ion accelerator.

The BRICS (Brazil, Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa) are themselves in search of an effective growth strategy. Both Brazil and the Russian Federation struggled to harness innovation to economic growth during the commodities boom. India’s economy is dominated by the services sector, which is not creating enough jobs. The Modi government is advocating a new economic model based on the development of export-oriented manufacturing but, to achieve this, it will need to widen India’s innovation culture, currently limited to only a few industries (automotive, information technology, pharmaceuticals, etc.) In China, there is concern that massive investment in R&D over the past decade is not being matched by scientific output. In South Africa, there has been a sharp downturn in private-sector R&D since the global financial crisis, despite sustained public spending on R&D.

The paradigm shift towards greener growth has accelerated in the past five years. With global markets leaning towards green technologies, developed countries are prioritizing the development of cleaner, more efficient energy sources. Sustainable development has also become an integral part of national planning for the next 10-20 years in developing countries that are increasingly aware of the value of their natural capital but also of their vulnerability to climate change and environmental degradation.

The end of the commodities boom, coupled with the collapse of global oil prices since 2014, has underscored the vulnerability of national innovation systems in many resource-rich countries that are currently struggling to remain competitive, including Australia, Canada, Brazil, the oil-exporting Arab States, Azerbaijan, Central Asia and the Russian Federation. Some countries seem to be failing to seize the opportunity offered by resource-driven growth to strengthen the foundations of their economies. It is tempting to infer from this that high growth from resource extraction provides a disincentive for the business sector to focus on innovation and sustainable development. Other countries with a traditionally heavy reliance on commodity exports for their economic expansion have been striving to prioritize knowledge-driven development, such as Iran and Malaysia. This is producing results: the number of Iranian and Malaysian articles on nanoscience per million inhabitants rose steeply between 2009 and 2013.

Around the world, there is a growing tendency to develop futuristic hyper-connected smart cities (e.g. China, Republic of Korea) which use information technology to improve the efficiency of public services related to water and energy use, transportation and so on.  

Information technology is not only driving the world’s smart cities. It is also driving what has been termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is using the Internet of things and the Internet of services to blur the barriers between services and industry. A growing number of countries are digitalizing industry, in order to revitalize their manufacturing sector, including China, France, Germany, India, the Republic of Korea and USA. Examples of this advanced manufacturing include 3D printing, connected reality, next-generation robotics and Google’s self-driving car.

Read an interview of the Editor-in-Chief of the report (in Russian, English and French)