The Scientific Landscape – A Landscape Of Power

Every five years, the UNESCO Science Report provides an update of trends in science governance.

Written by 70 authors from 52 countries, it aggregates data on spending, personnel, scientific publications and patents. The latest edition tracks progress towards the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the rapid progress of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It also tracks the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global research and innovation.

The Covid19 pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of an international collaborative scientific response to the challenges we face globally. What has also been very clear is that the inequalities within our societies and across nations is a very real and present danger to tackling both the climate emergency and future pandemics.

The Race against Time for Smarter Development published by UNESCO showed that between 2014 and 2018  just two countries, the United States and China, account for nearly two-thirds of the increase (63%) in spending on science. Four out of five countries lag far behind, investing less than 1% of their GDP in scientific research. The scientific landscape remains largely a landscape of power.

A digital and green economic future is seen as the way forward with Japan leading the way in this combination particularly in the field of robotics. The aim is to transform the Japanese way of life which is struggling with a low birth rate and an ageing demographic.

Towns will be powered by energy supplied in flexible and decentralized ways to meet the inhabitants’ specific needs while conserving energy. Flying drones will deliver postal services to depopulated areas. In sectors where there is a shortage of labour, selfdriving vehicles will plough the fields and robots will be deployed to care homes.

UNESCO report

The rise of the digital revolution is also leaving many behind who do not have access to this technology, e-commerce and the informal economy where cash sales are the norm as is the case with India. On the continent of Africa mobile phones are being used increasingly and effectively for instance ‘by 2019, 78% of adults in rural Tanzania could reach formal financial services within a radius of 5 km.’

Energy production is the means of providing the digital and green future.

‘In sub-Saharan Africa, only half (48%) of the population currently has access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency.’

In contrast to this and to find solutions to the use of fossil fuel dependency, Caribbean and South Pacific countries are looking to renewable energy. ‘Six Pacific Island countries aim to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable sources within a decade.’

Nuclear power plants are being both phased in and out in many countries. Korea is developing hydrogen as it phases out nuclear dependency. Japan and Ukraine are both establishing solar plants on the sites of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, Fukushima (2011) and Chernobyl (1986).

The report states 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.

Sharing of knowledge

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, explains:

“Better-endowed science is indispensable. Science must become less unequal, more cooperative and more open. Today’s challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, decline of ocean health and pandemics are all global. This is why we must mobilize scientists and researchers from all over the world.”

Although international scientific cooperation has increased over the last five years, open access still only applies to one publication in four. Moreover, despite the tremendous collective momentum generated by the fight against COVID-19, many obstacles stand in the way of open access to research in much of the world.

For example, more than 70% of publications remain largely inaccessible to the majority of researchers. The report documents efforts to break down these barriers, which are sources of both inequality and inefficiency. New models for the circulation and dissemination of scientific knowledge in society must be implemented.

The report urges the restoration of public confidence in science, and reminds us that today’s science contributes to shaping the world of tomorrow, which is why it is essential to prioritize humanity’s common goal of sustainability through ambitious science policy.

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 this and other global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

UNESCO report

The report concludes, however that ‘sustainability science is not yet mainstream in academic publishing even though countries are investing more than before in green technologies.’

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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