Vulnerable Countries Set the Bar High for Research on Sustainable Development Goals

World leaders vowed to reduce poverty and hunger, safeguard biodiversity and the climate, and enrol all children in school by 2030 as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. What has been the reaction of researchers and funders? Is there any evidence of a change in research priorities?

UNESCO used the Scopus database to map publications on 56 research subjects important to the SDGs from over 200 countries between 2011 and 2019. The high-income countries, which account for 64 per cent of worldwide research spending and include Japan, South Korea, the United States, and several European countries, saw minimal change in the number of publications related to the SDGs and a diminishing percentage of global research.

Low- and middle-income countries, on the other hand, have begun to reorient their research emphasis toward the aims. For example, throughout the study period, the share of publications on photovoltaics — which might help achieve the SDG of increasing renewable energy — from low- and lower-middle-income countries more than tripled, from 6.2 per cent to 22 per cent of the global total. Biofuels and biomass papers then tripled in number, from 8.5 per cent to 23 per cent.

Low-income nations increased their share of research papers on climate-resilient crops from 5% to 11% of all publications. In 2019, academics from Sub-Saharan Africa contributed 361 of the 885 smallholder agricultural articles, outnumbering the European Union’s 294. Ecuador, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Russia, and Vietnam all increased their output on most issues, despite starting from low points in certain cases.

China is responsible for much of the growth. According to UNESCO, Chinese researchers now publish nearly half of all global research on battery efficiency, 43% on hydrogen energy, and 41% on carbon pricing. Between 2012 and 2015, they published 1,300 articles on carbon capture and storage, up to 2,049 in 2016–19.

High-income countries, on the other hand, such as France, Germany, and the United States, saw dropping shares and numbers during the same time period. The study of floating marine plastics is an exception. In 2019, the discipline, which scarcely existed a decade earlier, had 853 articles, the majority of which came from high-income countries. However, in 54 of the 56 sectors studied, wealthier countries reported a decrease in their share of publication.

It’s distressing to see the wealthiest countries make such little progress. However, there is a trend here. According to UNESCO experts, wealthy countries spent less than $25 billion on international development aid in environmental sectors such as climate change and biodiversity between 2000 and 2013, accounting for less than one-fifth of the $130 billion spent on industry and innovation.

At the same time, it’s encouraging to see scientific production slowly recovering in many low-income nations, some of which were formerly major centres of study. However, according to UNESCO, funding trends in these countries have become more difficult to track. In 2015, 98 countries supplied financing statistics; by 2018, that number had dropped to 68.

It’s both worrisome and troubling that 28% of high-income countries and 78% of low- and middle-income countries don’t submit their science-funding figures. The ability to link financing data to publishing statistics would provide a more complete picture of the gains and help identify areas that may benefit from more support. Countries must comply with UNESCO’s information requests, in part because they must track these statistics for the SDGs.

Even before the epidemic, most of the Sustainable Development Goals were not on track to be met. The world is “running out of time,” according to the UNESCO study, with less than a decade until the 2030 deadline to end poverty and protect the environment.

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