By Anissa Alifandi, Corporate Communications Manager at the British Science Association

The British Science Association recently published a report calling on leaders across sectors to take action – utilising science – to ensure a sustainable, equitable future. Titled 'Build better', the report is the culmination of roundtables and discussions from our thought leadership programme, For Thought. We gathered leaders from business, policy, science and civil society to share their ideas and experiences, and attempt to address societal challenges.

Of course, we’re not the only organisation to advocate for a better future shaped by science.

More science is being done in powerful nations

A report released by UNESCO two weeks ago, titled ‘The race against time for smarter development’, lauds the marked increase in research investment over the past five years. In it, they state that “spending on science worldwide increased (+19%) between 2014 and 2018”. The number of actual scientists has also gone up by 13.7%. Brilliant news, one would think. It transpires however, that 63% of this investment can be attributed to two countries: the US and China.

So, whilst the global powerhouses push on ahead advancing their nations, what about the rest? The report finds that four out of five countries spend less than 1% of their total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on science research, something that is likely to perpetuate the existing gap between more and less economically developed countries. Those left behind may then rely more heavily on advanced nations, rather than being able to drive scientific innovation – and significant economic growth – within their own populations.

One ‘Call For Thought’ (as opposed to an immediate call to action), put forward in the ‘Build better’ report, urges leaders to work towards creating open source frameworks and to improve data sharing practices. Efforts to control the pandemic have relied upon unrestricted access to SARS-CoV-2 genomes and bioprocessing knowledge, resulting in the development and approval of clinically safe vaccines in record time. Support to waiver patents on COVID-19 vaccines recognises that, although richer countries ploughed investment into vaccine technologies, there is a moral obligation to assist less economically developed countries in their own implementation programmes.

The UNESCO report, however, nods to the current geopolitical landscape and what this might mean for accessible science in years to come. Rising nationalism threatens to widen the gap between leading powers, who are investing heavily in R&D, and the rest of the world. Some countries may be mounting resources into innovation, but this may only benefit select populations in the future, adding further to the concerns that the chasm between those investing greatly and those who aren’t (or cannot) will become even less traversable.

AI research on the up, whilst climate-related publications decline

Although we are seeing a general increase in scientific output there remains significant gaps in work essential in fighting the climate emergency. The UNESCO report states that in 2019, “research into carbon capture and storage only generated 2,500 articles, 60 times fewer than artificial intelligence”. It goes onto say that output has fallen in countries regarded as leaders in climate change action, such as the US, Germany and Canada, and that papers on sustainable energy comprise just 2.5% of those in 2019. These are worrying statistics considering that 2021 was supposed to be the ‘year for climate action’ and renewed pledges to cut carbon emissions have been made internationally.

On a brighter note, less economically developed countries are publishing the most articles, proportionately, on sustainability topics. Encouraging, as these populations are often most at risk from the effects of climate change, despite the fact that developed countries are largely to blame. Although UNESCO reports an overall downturn, this does not mean to say that research is not ongoing (we may see a marked rise in publications of this ilk in the next year or so, as restrictions continue to lift in some institutions). The report also does not take into account work done in the private sector.

The UNESCO report also found that more research is being conducted on technological advances such as AI, another field that will influence the next few decades. This could be seen as a positive and draws parallels with farsighted work conducted under DARPA, the US Government programme responsible for inventions such as the internet and GPS. With more resources being funnelled into AI and related disciplines such as machine learning, who knows what we could achieve? Furthermore, countries not typically considered as research giants have upped their AI and robotics research output considerably. In 2019, Ecuador, Peru and Ukraine displayed the highest growth rate, whilst India came second globally for publications in the field. A promising indication that innovations could evolve from all corners of the world.

A new area of research, same representation problems

Despite this rise, just over a fifth of scientists working in AI are female. This imbalance, existing also in the current engineering workforce in the UK among numerous other sectors, threatens to impede progress in the field and creates barriers to entry. Even as scientific knowledge itself advances, the makeup of the scientists doing the work remains dominated by certain demographics.

The UNESCO report describes policies incentivising younger researchers (due to some regions experiencing a ‘brain drain’ as early career scientists move away from their countries of origin) to continue working. Similar measures to amend the gender balance could form part of a solution to address this, and will likely hasten development during the next technological revolution.

What could we do with more investment?

One of the main takeaways of the UNESCO report is a call for substantial increases in investment in science to better prepare for the increasing risks of crises. One ‘Call For Thought’ from the ‘Build better’ report puts forward the need for more capacity (or ‘slack’) in systems, enabling greater flexibility when subjected to abnormal stress such as global pandemics. Another notable ‘Call For Thought’ that we identified was the need for longer-term thinking when planning and creating policies, a process typically limited by governments’ terms and grant funding.

Whilst both benefit from direct financial support, investment into training and development, better all-round inclusivity practices and international support for less economically developed countries in establishing their R&D expertise must also be on the agenda. This will maximise the potential of the workforce, contributing to the extra capacity and capabilities needed to deal with the crises of tomorrow, in a just and scientifically sound way.