THE PANDEMIC has underscored the importance of scientific inquiry. Researchers started work on vaccines as soon as SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material was sequenced. Journals published data analysis with impressive speed. Hospital clinicians collaborated with academics and companies in order to speed up drug development. The machinery of science found another gear.
An expansive new study by UNESCO, the United Nations’ science, education and culture agency, however, shows how countries’ spending on scientific practice was increasing across the world even before the pandemic. The report, published every five years, aggregates data from 193 countries. It is a barometer both of the level of support for scientific endeavour and of what the main areas of study are.
Between 2014 and 2018, a 19.2% surge in spending on research worldwide outstripped global economic growth (14.8%). That added investment meant the proportion of GDP spent on research rose from 1.73% to 1.79% on average. Much of that growth came from one country alone (see chart below). In its quest to seize scientific superiority from America, China increased its expenditure from $135bn in 2008 to $439bn in 2018.
Nine-tenths of research spending, output and personnel comes from G20 countries; four out of five countries worldwide spend less than 1% of their GDP on research. At 4.9% Israel invests the most in research and development as a share of GDP of any country (see top chart).
The report also counted scientific papers, which increased by 21% globally between 2015 and 2019. Possibly driven by a “publish or perish” culture at universities, the European Union (28.6%), China (24.5%) and America (20.5%) were responsible for most of this work, but developing countries increased their output by 71%. Much of that growth was in one broad category—artificial intelligence and robotics—with 147,806 publications in 2019, up from 109,521 in 2011. Such technologies are increasingly used in the developed world and are seen as a possible antidote to low birth rates and ageing populations. Japan, in particular, sees robots as central to its future, using drones to make deliveries, “agribots” to work in fields and humanoid machines to help in care homes.
In the developing world a very different research landscape emerges, one dominated by the threat of climate change. As poor countries desperately try to avert environmental catastrophes, they focus more on sustainability than on anything else. Countries such as Guyana and Senegal have begun to invest in renewable energy sources with revenues from fossil-fuel mining, but for now they rely heavily on foreign technology and expertise. It is in fields related to climate change, too, that international scientific collaboration is most apparent. The fastest-growing research topic of the 56 examined by the UNESCO report concerned the removal of floating plastic debris from the ocean. In 2011 only 46 publications considered the problem—in 2019, 853 did. Climate-ready crops was the second-fastest growing subject, driven by research in low-income countries. In 2011 they contributed to 4.5% of research on it, which increased to 11.4% in 2019.
This report is a sign that research can no longer be chalked off as a luxury item in national budgets. It calls on governments to invest more, and more strategically, in research, by encouraging innovation in the private sector. But there is cause for concern among the optimism. Investment and growth in renewable energy are growing but “sustainability science is not yet mainstream in academic publishing”, the authors argue. Covid-19 has shown that great leaps can be made when the scientific community focuses its attention on one problem. The energy generated by the pandemic must not dissipate; the same focus should be channelled towards tackling climate change.