Poorer nations 'more focused on sustainability'

By Victoria Gill
Science correspondent, BBC News

image source, Getty Images

Developing nations put proportionately more of their research effort into sustainability than richer countries, a Unesco study has revealed.

The report, published every five years, tracks scientific research output.

"We want to know what development path countries are following and the challenges they face," explained Unesco's Dr Susan Schneegans.

The report also tracks progress towards meeting the United Nations' (UN) sustainable development goals.

By analysing the research coming out of each country, it assesses how much progress is being made towards those targets. They were set by the UN in 2015 to ensure all countries work together to protect people's health, tackle poverty and to protect the planet.

In a wide-ranging and global study, the authors looked at 56 topics that they categorised as "sustainability research". These included investigations into ecological alternatives to plastic, developing crops to withstand our changing climate, clean water and renewable energy technologies.

image source, Reuters

Proportionately, developing countries were found to be publishing the most on those topics.

Poorer, developing economies tend to be most reliant on natural resources and are bearing much of the brunt of climate change, so, as Dr Schneegans explained, "it's more of a question of survival for them".

Unesco's Dr Tiffany Straza added: "Under the present reality of climate change, ecological degradation and socio-ecological injustice, many countries do not have time to wait before understanding and acting towards their sustainable development," she told BBC News.

Floating plastic debris in the ocean was the "sustainability topic" that showed the fastest growth in research output - increasing from 46 scientific publications in 2011 to 853 in 2019.

But Dr Straza said it was a concern that there had not been a "boost in scientific output" in some research areas that would enable richer nations to help meet the sustainable development goals and to fight climate change. For carbon capture and storage research, she said, "output even declined among high-income economies".

"Meeting the Goals will require information and action," she added, "so let's prioritize our scientific funding and effort."

Pandemic prevention

More broadly, spending on science worldwide increased by almost 20% between 2014 and 2018. The US and China account for nearly two-thirds of this increase, while four out of five countries still invest less than 1% of their Gross Domestic Product in scientific research.

Unesco is calling for countries to invest more in research, something that Dr Scheeggans says has become even more urgent in the face of the Covid pandemic.

"We really need to think more about prevention," she told BBC News. "During the pandemic, we've seen an emphasis on finding a cure, but it would be much better to have prevented the pandemic in the first place.

"The pandemic, its economic impacts, ecology - they're all linked. So every time we cut down part of a tropical forest, we're at risk of liberating new animal diseases.

"We should really learn the lesson from this, and invest in sustainability research and learn how to preserve our environment."

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