UNESCO Report Summarizes Five-Year Global Science Policy Trends

By: Hannah Pell

On 11 June 2021, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) released a report titled “The Race Against Time for Smarter Development.” This report consolidates a culmination of research over five years (2014-2018) on worldwide science policy trends and governance, centering on three key areas: research spending, digital technologies, and sustainability. UNESCO’s conclusions offer answers to the question: are we using science to build the future we want?

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the necessity of global scientific cooperation and open science, the right of citizens to accessible and transparent science. Modern technological, environmental, and public health challenges are by no means restricted by geographic borders; their rampant severity is a consequence of our vast yet highly interconnected world. UNESCO has found that, although international scientific collaboration has increased (23.5% of all scientific publications in 2019 were written by international co-authors, compared to 21.7% in 2015) and the overall number of researchers has grown by 13.7% globally, more than nine-tenths of all research expenditure and publications are accounted for by the G20 countries. Scientific research spending grew by 19.2%, but almost half of this increase (44%) can be accounted for by China alone. Comparatively, 80% of countries are spending less than 1% of gross domestic product on research. Finances across the international scientific playing field are nowhere near equitably distributed.

As many of us quickly adjusted to remote work as a consequence of COVID-19, this drastic shift highlighted the importance of access to digital technologies, providing further evidence of their vitality for future economic competitiveness. One major area of focus is artificial intelligence (AI); almost 150,000 articles on AI and robotics were published in 2019 (meanwhile, carbon capture generated 60 times fewer articles). From 2016 to 2020, more than 30 countries adopted dedicated strategies for AI. Companies in 2019 reported shortages of “skilled talent to clean, integrate and extract value from big data and move beyond baby steps toward AI.” Yet the widespread ways in which automation may disrupt labor and further drive socioeconomic inequality — colloquially referred to as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — has caused significant concern among workers regarding the future of their work; more than 60% of children today could end up working in jobs that do not yet exist as a result of technological disruption.

Many countries have aligned their national science policies in accordance with UNESCO’s The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a “plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity.” To meet these goals and address the climate crisis, countries are rethinking the interdependencies of digitization and sustainability rather than prioritizing one over the other. However, despite the urgency of the 2030 deadline, UNESCO’s analysis of 56 research topics found that sustainability still accounts for a meager fraction of scientific publications; for example, research into climate-ready crops accounted for 0.02% of scientific output between 2011 and 2019. Energy, however, has secured its place as a central area for global decarbonization efforts and navigating simultaneous digital and green transitions; almost one-third of countries at least doubled their output of research on battery efficiencies and smart-grid technologies. Additionally, innovations in solar and wind technologies have drastically reduced the cost of these renewable energy sources.

The report also emphasizes the necessity of a diverse and representative scientific community (see Chapter 3, “To be smart, the digital revolution will need to be inclusive”). The United Nations predicts that women will lose five jobs for every one gained through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Women are still a minority among communities training for “the jobs of tomorrow,” making up 33% of researchers in 2018 and 28% of engineering graduates. Notably, such a lack of equal representation may continue and perpetuate the misuse of AI technologies, particularly through gender bias.

Our “race against time” stresses the urgency with which we must work together, globally, to address these complex and interdependent issues. UNESCO reminds us of the need to maintain public confidence in science and the collective benefits of prioritizing sustainability in our approach to science governance. Though the statistics provided here are nowhere close to exhaustive (the report is approximately 750 pages), UNESCO offers a small look into the most serious science policy issues of the last decade, and suggest solutions to ensure these trends do not characterize our scientific future.
 Image credit: UNESCO.
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