Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Grant Whittington headshot

Countries Invest in Research Aligned with SDGs, But Are They Going Far Enough?


A report of how research and development is progressing in nearly 200 countries revealed that research, particularly in low- and lower middle-income countries, are increasingly aligning with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are related to combating climate change.

The 700-page report titled “The Race Against Time for Smarter Development“ was published in July 2021 by UNESCO and measured 56 topics across eight of the sustainability-related SDGs (SDGs 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14, 15). The trends showcased countries and governments commitment to investing in research around digital and green transitions, in areas ranging from wastewater treatment to greenhouse gas emissions to desalination.

Globally, the output of scientific publishing was 21 percent higher in 2019 than in 2015. The increase is even more impressive when zeroing in on low- and lower middle-income countries, which witnessed a 71 percent increase in scientific output. While China is fueling much of this growth for low- and lower middle-income countries, the collective advances in research on climate-related SDGs is encouraging.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, tech hubs and incubators are growing rapidly. Across the continent there are now 744 dedicated tech hubs, with thirteen African countries exceeding 20 hubs. There has also been an impressive increase in the number of people classified as full-time researchers worldwide. In the span of just five years, the world added one million researchers, representing a rate three times faster than that of global population growth. Research publications conducted by lower middle-income countries also skyrocketed on breakthrough renewable energy topics like photovoltaics (from 6.2 percent to 21.2 percent) and biofuels and biomass (from 7.6 percent to 21.6 percent).

That leads to one takeaway that investors can take from this UNESCO report: Many of these emerging economies are ripe for additional investments in clean energy technologies as many of them are “leapfrogging” over the infrastructure required for conventional energy sources such as oil and natural gas.

Still, G20 countries handily set the pace for such research worldwide. Together, they account for 90 percent of the world’s researchers, research spending and scientific publications. Despite the encouraging research trends in countries and governments investing in digital and green transitions, eight out of ten countries spend less than 1 percent of their GDP on research. This underfunding of research is particularly prominent in low- and lower middle-income countries, who continue to depend on foreign outfits for technology.

[Click here to view the government expenditure on research from 1996 to 2018. While the data pulses year over year depending on the country, the general trends show research spending as a portion of government spending is increasing.]

Perhaps more troubling, the UNESCO publication also highlights challenges it faced in accurately reporting the progress of achieving the SDGs. Despite commitments to monitor their progress in research intensity, countries have actually become less apt to share their data. In fact, 30 fewer countries reported their numbers for domestic research in 2019 than in 2015.

Alarmingly, the United Nations’ Environment Program published a report in 2019 revealing that 68 percent of climate-related SDG indicators cannot be measured due to a lack of data. While it shouldn’t negate the renewed strides of governments, policymakers and researchers across the world to increase their investments in technology and green research, the UNESCO report aptly notes: “One cannot monitor what one cannot measure.”

The importance of conducting research is not to be understated. The number of climate-related research publications, researchers focused on photovoltaics, or articles published about battery efficiency may not make for the splashiest, most click-worthy headline. But the research is laying the foundation for future systems change. The trend of governments aligning their research priorities with SDGs should lead to tangible results in accomplishing ambitious goals, whether by the 2030 deadline or beyond.

There’s also a serious business case to be made for governments investing in research. Look no further than China, who was responsible for 44 percent of the growth in worldwide research expenditure. They’re commitment to research, and apparent return on investment as seen in its meteoric rise to the number two world economy by measure of GDP, is something other countries may look to as a model.

Image credit: Fateme Alaie/Unsplash

Grant Whittington headshot

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

Read more stories by Grant Whittington