The recently released global Science Report by UNESCO highlights the importance of innovation in the COVID-19 world. Conducted every 5 years, this year’s UNESCO offering demonstrates that collaboration, open access and open science, and global alignment of scientific endeavour in the fight against the pandemic and more broadly, is critical to leverage capabilities, pool talent and jointly discover knowledge in pursuit of tangible solutions.
The report highlights the importance of scientific evidence and brokerage institutions, to link scientists with policymakers and the community to ensure that all are on the same page and that key decisions are backed up by the most precise information and intelligence. The report can be downloaded from UNESCO Science report 2021.
The report demonstrates the growing importance of science, technology and innovation, as a basis for competitive advantage for nations and addressing complex challenges.
For example, growth in global research spending was 19.2% between 2014 and 2018 compared to GDP growth of 14.8%, which in turn led to a rise in gross expenditure on research and development as a proportion of global GDP to 1.79% up from 1.73%. The rise in the number of researchers over this period was 13.7% compared to growth in the global population of 4.6%.
However, these trends need further unpacking. Growth in expenditure per researcher has been a modest 1.6%, and a great number of countries still spend less than 1% of GDP on research. Further, one country, China dominates proceedings, exhibiting 44% of the growth in global research spending and 21.8% of global research expenditure, followed by growth in the US (19.4%) and EU (11.0%).
Further, research expenditure is dominated by hubs in East and South-East Asia (China, Japan and the Republic of Korea) the EU and North America. Globally, the divide between those with greater access to science and those with less has been exacerbated while intra- regional collaboration is on the rise. Could this be a sign of greater regional-based innovation systems or shifts to a more protectionist mindset around the world?
Gender equity continues to be a concern globally. Women account for only one-third of researchers around the world, and only one-quarter of tertiary graduates in engineering but a better 40% in computer sciences. Women’s participation in work in the emerging field of Artificial Intelligence is only just over 20%. However, greater equality is observed in life science research. COVID-19 has exacerbated gender inequality in a range of areas, including job security, employment and promotion prospects and balancing work and home life.
The UNESCO report finds that sustainability research is not yet mainstream in academic publishing globally, most particularly in the developed world. In our view, in the context of ambitious goals for UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) by 2030, sustainability research will require considerable priority and focus as it cuts across a vast array of economic, health (including the pandemic), and environmental domains.
Turning now to India, the report outlines some interesting findings and some significant promises but with challenges. India is now in the top 15 in the world for domestic expenditure on R&D (54 billion dollars in purchasing power parity), but still significantly behind powerhouses in the US, China, Japan, Germany and South Korea. Moreover, India’s share of global GDP far outweighs its global share of expenditure on research and development.
Despite its growth in research and development expenditure between 2014 and 2018 (and a slightly higher share of global research and development expenditure), India’s global share of GDP is more than twice its global share of R&D. Concerningly, gross expenditure on research and development as a share of GDP has fallen in India between 2014 and 2018 from 0.70% to 0.65%. This is short of what most countries target, usually upwards of 1% and even higher.
India’s share of global researchers at 3.87%, is as to be expected, below its global share of the population, but is also well behind a number of other countries, notably China (21.6%) and the US (16.23%). Further significant investment in human resource capacity in science and technology and innovation is needed in India. In general, researchers are dominated by high-income countries.
India has exhibited considerable growth in publications, and in collaborative papers. On publications in key fields, India’s share of global publications is now more than 18% in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (and in the top 15 by growth between 2012 and 2019), while its share of publications has grown in Energy, Materials, nanotechnology and optoelectronics but to a much lesser extent.
India’s share of global publications however has fallen marginally in biotechnology which is a core area for the future, although India is a leading player on research on viruses that affect humans, which is of particular relevance in the current context. Overall though it would appear that India is placing a lot of eggs in the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics basket, interesting, yet at one level possibly puzzling since the job shedding potential of this field is a cause for anxiety around the world.
The issue of gender inequality in India is also represented in the share of tertiary fields by education. With the exception of ICT, the share of Indian tertiary female graduates in scientific and engineering fields, including agriculture, is well below its share in arts and humanities, social sciences and health and welfare, and below a number of counterpart countries. It would appear that traditional boundaries and gender norms pertaining to tertiary education continue to hold. More generally is the need to boost STEM graduates in India.
In a specific chapter on India, the report notes that the significant income inequality in the country, and that manufacturing continues to struggle in employment and value-added, despite the Make in India programme, and more recently Make India Self Reliant in the context of the COVID-19. However, it should be noted that India has been taking a leading role in three core areas: vaccine research; manufacturing generic drugs; and frugal engineering of medical devices. Key issues for competitiveness in these areas include finance for research projects and access to Intellectual Property. More generally, on intellectual property, patenting has been on the rise for India but most of these are for foreign inventors, especially multinational corporations, rather than homegrown capability. The extent to which foreign corporations transfer know-how locally is a moot point. An important positive trend though has been the increase in the share of research and development performed by businesses in India, indicating the greater emphasis on the commercialisation of research outputs.
Despite India’s priority given to start up’s, access to finance has typically been an issue, although a number of policy reforms are noted, while it should be stated that startups are concentrated in only a few locations in India. The report points to the need for stronger relationships between start up’s and manufacturers, and for the industry to mentor start up’s.
Government priorities also reflect the intensification of the science technology and innovation agenda. Incentives are in place to promote electric vehicles, diffusion of green technologies (although environmental management and addressing climate change remain major challenges), there are measures for skills development through the Skills Development Mission (noting that employability of graduates remains a concern) and there is a greater focus on e-learning especially in the context of COVID-19. The Government is also pushing the agenda for the 4th Industrial Revolution including the use and deployment of Blockchain Technology.
Finally, the report notes the emergence of dual innovation systems, the US versus the Chinese systems as both nations continue to strive for global leadership. This development brings with it considerable risks in our view by hampering global collaboration and coordination and the free flow of ideas and expertise around the world. Such a development has interesting and important ramifications for India in terms of whether it “chooses sides” or seeks to develop a third-way indigenous system, possibly in concert with like-minded others.
Dr. Anand Kulkarni is a Higher Education Professional at Victoria University, Australia. The views expressed here belong to the author. This article draws in part on a previous article by the author for the Campus Review.
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