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Women left behind as scientific enterprise grows

The number of researchers at work today throughout the world—about 7.8 million—has grown 21% in the past 6 years, according to the UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030, published 10 November. “This remarkable growth is also reflected in the explosion of scientific publications,” which increased by 23.4% between 2008 and 2014—from 1,029,471 to 1,270,425 a year—the report adds.

The report offers a trove of detailed information about the scientific enterprise, both worldwide and in specific countries. For example, as of 2013, 22.2% of the world’s researchers are in the European Union  and 19.1% are in China, which in 2011 surpassed the United States (currently with 16.7%). Japan has 8.5% of the global share of researchers, and the Russian Federation has 5.7%. The European Union produced 34% of the world’s publications, while the United States produced 25%. But thanks to its recent “meteoric rise,” China now accounts for 20% of the world’s publications, nearly double its share of only 5 years ago. Five years before that, China’s production amounted to a mere 5% of the global total.

Women 'also tend to have more limited access to funding than men and to be less represented in prestigious universities and among senior faculty, which puts them at a further disadvantage in high-impact publishing.'

The rapid expansion of the worldwide scientific enterprise resulted from a 31% worldwide increase in spending on R&D between 2007 and 2013—notwithstanding the 2008 economic crisis—from $1,132,000,000 to $1,478,000,000 a year, the report states. But just four scientific powers together account for 76.4% of the world’s R&D expenditure. With a 28.1% share, the United States remains in first place. China, with 19.6%, has taken second place, outpacing the European Union with 19.1% and Japan with 9.6%.

The report also notes  “large differences” in the fields that countries concentrate on. “The traditionally dominant scientific countries seem to be relatively strong in astronomy and relatively weak in agricultural sciences,” the report states. “France’s scientific strength still seems to lie in mathematics. The USA and UK focus more on life sciences and medicine and Japan on chemistry.” Among the emerging middle-income scientific powers, Russia specializes in “physics, astronomy, geosciences, mathematics and chemistry. By contrast, China’s scientific output shows a fairly well-balanced pattern, with the exception of psychology, social and life sciences, where China’s scientific output is well below the average. Brazil’s relative strengths lie in agriculture and life sciences. Malaysia … specializes in engineering and computer sciences.”

Scientists remain extremely mobile. For example, “researchers from lower income countries are still pursuing career opportunities abroad but their destination of choice is widening,” because North America and Europe lost some of their attraction following the economic collapse of 2008, the report notes. “Even countries suffering from brain drain are also attracting researchers,” the report continues. In one interesting example, “Sudan lost more than 3 000 junior and senior researchers to migration between 2002 and 2014, according to the National Research Centre,” the report states. “Researchers were drawn to neighbouring [sic] countries such as Eritrea and Ethiopia by the better pay, which is more than double that offered to university staff in Sudan. In turn, Sudan has become a refuge for students from the Arab world, particularly since the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Sudan is also attracting a growing number of students from Africa.”

Many of the world’s students are women, including 53% of those earning bachelor's or master's degrees, “but their numbers drop off abruptly at PhD level,” the report notes. At that level, men constitute 57% of those completing degrees. “The discrepancy widens at the researcher level, with men now representing 72% of the global pool. The high proportion of women in tertiary education is, thus, not necessarily translating into a greater presence in research.” Overall, “[t]he glass ceiling [is] still intact,” with “[e]ach step up the ladder of the scientific research system see[ing] a drop in female participation until, at the highest echelons of scientific research and decision-making, there are very few women left.” In addition to constituting a minority of only 28% of researchers worldwide, women “also tend to have more limited access to funding than men and to be less represented in prestigious universities and among senior faculty, which puts them at a further disadvantage in high-impact publishing,” the report observes.

The overall worldwide percentage of women scientists, however, “masks wide variations at both the national and regional levels.” In the former Soviet Bloc countries of Southeast Europe, for example, women constitute 49% of researchers. They also account for 44% in regions including Central Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Regions where women constitute about a third of researchers include the Arab states (37%); the European Free Trade Association, consisting of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, with 34%; the European Union (33%); and sub-Saharan Africa (30%).

In view of the tremendous progress women have made in obtaining higher education in the past several decades, the report finds “the absence of women from the highest echelons of science and related decision-making … surprising,” but it does discuss various factors that contribute to this inequity.

This array of demographic data is only a tiny taste of the wide range of fascinating information presented in this nearly 800-page document, which you can find here.