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Developing national policy frameworks for science, technology and innovation

In the Addis Agenda, governments commit to adopting science, technology and innovation strategies and to craft policies that incentivize the creation of new technologies, research and innovation in developing countries.

Adopt science, technology and innovation strategies as integral elements of national sustainable development strategies

The amount of expenditure on R&D as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the most widely used indicator to measure countries' efforts in STI. This indicator is also used to measure the progress towards achieving SDG Goal 9. Research and development (R&D) comprise creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge, including the knowledge of humankind, culture and society, and to devise new applications of available knowledge. The data on research and development expenditure as a proportion of GDP show only a modest increase from 2000 to 2014 among developed regions, LLDCs and LDCs. The share for SIDS declined between 2010 and 2012 and increased again in 2013 and 2014 (though SIDS spending is largely driven by one country), while MICs have enjoyed steady growth. In absolute terms, expenditure increased in developing countries.

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Access to STI does not guarantee social and economic impact. The ability to make use of and benefit from STI is essential. Therefore, in order for STI efforts to contribute to sustainable development it is necessary not only to devote efforts to increase access to relevant technologies, but also to establish coherent STI policies and an enabling environment.

There is currently no source reporting on the number of countries that have adopted legislative, administrative and policy frameworks for national STI strategies. There is also no aggregate data about the number of independent reviews of national STI policy frameworks or the degree to which such strategies are integral elements of reviews of national sustainable development strategies.

However, efforts have been conducted by various UN bodies and other international agencies to assess the innovation systems of countries. For instance, since 2008, UNCTAD has been conducting 15 STI policy reviews with the aim of strengthening the national innovation capacities of developing countries, and to ensure that their national STI plans and programmes are able to support their broader national sustainable development agenda. By the end of 2016 UNCTAD had completed the STIP review of Iran (Islamic Republic of) and was in the process of completing the review of Rwanda.

Table 1: Research and development intensity (R&D activities as a percentage of GDP), regions, 2010 and 2014







Arab States



Central and Eastern Europe



Central Asia



East Asia and the Pacific



Latin America and the Caribbean



North America and Western Europe



South and West Asia



Sub-Saharan Africa



Source: UNESCO Institute of Statistics. UNESCO region and sub-region definitions.

Table 1 shows the data on R&D intensity (percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) devoted to R&D activities) by regions and selected economies. The data show an increase in efforts between 2010 and 2014 for all regions and most of the economies selected except Central Asia. The regions with higher growth in their R&D efforts during this period are Arab States and Central and Eastern Europe. In contrast, North America and Western Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa are the region with the smallest growth in R&D intensity. However, in order to increase their level of R&D/GDP, countries' efforts in R&D would need to grow at higher rates than their GDP.

The STI performance of a country, as well as the economic and social impact of STI, is also affected by the quality and level of interactions and flows of knowledge between agents in the innovation system— such as firms, knowledge production organisations (universities and research centres), public agencies and intermediate organizations. These interactions are enabled (or not) by infrastructure, market forces and public policies. The systemic nature of the innovation process underlines the need to incorporate scientific and technological knowledge into national development strategies and plans in order to make effective use of innovation.

UNCTAD works on STI for development through various ways, including by servicing the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development and carrying out national Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) reviews. UNCTAD's work on STI for development has revealed challenges on national STI capacities that hinder the capacity of countries to ensure STI help achieve the SDGs, including: a lack of capacity to formulate coherent STI policies and to integrate them into development plans; a lack of human resources in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); and a lack of absorptive and innovation capacity of local firms.

Stronger focus on investment in STI, and the rapid adoption or diffusion of technologies and innovation will be needed for developed and developing countries to fulfil commitments related to these commitments. Three main considerations can be highlighted based on the findings from these reviews as well as from related initiatives:

a. STI policies need to be coherent with national development strategies

The integration of STI policies into national overall strategies influences the capacity of countries to capitalize on STI for sustainable development. The linkages between STI policy and other development policies —such as those relating to industry, foreign direct investment, trade, competition, education and training, entrepreneurship, and small and medium enterprises— need to be acknowledged. Efforts need to be placed on understanding these linkages in order to ensure adequate coherence among these policies as well as addressing weaknesses in the wider framework conditions that go beyond narrowly defined STI policies.

b. Local context needs to be considered in the design of STI policy

The context to STI policies varies greatly by country. Therefore, the particular national characteristics need to be considered when designing STI policy. In developing countries, innovation is largely incremental, characterized by small changes to existing process and products rather than radical or large scale innovation. Also, it is mainly found in the traditional sectors as they generally dominate these economies. At the same time, developing economies often have large informal sectors and many small and micro-enterprises with limited capacity to adopt new technologies, invest in R&D, training or innovation, or to introduce major innovations.

Further, new and emerging technologies, such as big data, the Internet of Things and digital automation, can create opportunities and benefits for countries but also can pose challenges to achieving the SDGs. The deployment of these and other technologies can increase or even create new divides between countries if the capacities of accessing and taking advantage of these technologies are absent, as pointed out in the United Nations Secretary-General’s 2016 report, Foresight for Digital Development.

Attention to local context also involves addressing the absorptive capability gap of countries and their innovation actors. This underscores the importance of human capital development, notably through STEM education and skills development, as well as infrastructure development.

c. Attention should be paid to capacity building in STI policymaking

There is a common persistence of a linear rather than a systemic understanding of the innovation process in many countries. This tends to result in a narrow focus by policy makers on scientific research, as opposed to a focus on addressing systemic weaknesses for achieving wider policy goals. This underlines the importance of improving familiarity of policymakers with innovation concepts. Also, attention should be given to increasing the understanding of STI policy tools and design, including monitoring and evaluation of these policies. Increasing the knowledge of STI issues may help improve the implementation of STI policies and strategies, and increase the support to policy action in this area. Furthermore, building the capacity to collect more comprehensive data on innovation processes can inform policymakers on aspects of the innovation ecosystem beyond readily available indicators like R&D. In addition to data on some countries available through Eurostat, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics collects innovation data from other countries at all income levels.