How Can We Measure SDG Progress on Science, Technology and Innovation?

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

The UN Statistical Commission is meeting in New York this week (6-9 March) to discuss a range of data related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). While the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is clearly recognized as the official data source for SDG 4 on education, the Commission will also be reviewing the role of the UIS in helping to monitor progress towards SDG 9 on innovation.

As part of Target 9.5 countries have pledged to: enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, in particular developing countries, including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and substantially increasing the number of research and development workers per 1 million people and public and private research and development spending.

To monitor progress towards this target, the UIS is producing two global indicators related to research and development (R&D): R&D expenditure as a proportion of GDP, and researchers per million population. At the same time, the Institute is developing a thematic set of indicators on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), given their vital role in reaching each and every SDG. 


In order to identify appropriate indicators for the thematic list, we started by sifting through the 169 SDG targets, and selecting the 40 that have the greatest relevance to STI covering, for example, innovation, health, ecosystems, food security, habitat and education. All of these targets have their own distinct indicators, but additional indicators on STI allow for more detailed monitoring of how STI contributes to their achievement.

We then examined various conceptual frameworks, drawing in particular on the literature around National Innovation Systems (NIS) and the notion of a ‘functional STI system’. Our next task is to spell out possible indicators that can be mapped to the SDGs, specifically for each of the six key areas, focusing on relevance, alignment, feasibility, and communicability. We will prioritize those indicators that already exist and for which there are reliable and internationally-comparable data. We will also include some experimental indicators to encourage their further development and future integration into mainstream national and international STI data collection efforts.

A proposed thematic set of STI indicators

Our proposed thematic list of STI indicators for the SDGs is structured around the practicalities of a functional STI system at work in six priority areas described below.

  1. STI framework conditions and governance

This group includes STI governance and accountability mechanisms such as agenda setting, prioritization, budget allocation and incentive schemes, as well as mechanisms for system learning. It also includes metrics related to the public acceptance and support for science and technology (S&T) and its recognition as a key driver in efforts to address broad socio-economic development challenges. Possible indicators would highlight the extent to which STI plays a role in policy priorities, the extent to which STI indicators have been mainstreamed into policy monitoring and evaluation, and help measure public attitudes towards S&T.

  1. Infrastructure for STI

Indicators under this group reflect the broad S&T knowledge infrastructure, covering topics such as higher education institutions, research capability and S&T-related official development assistance (ODA). These indicators cover a country’s educational infrastructure in relation to higher education, the scale of public research and scientific infrastructure, and the extent to which ODA flows support the development of indigenous S&T and research capabilities.

  1. Human capital for STI

This group of indicators focus on the supply of higher education graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as well as S&T-related human capital (including R&D personnel, researchers, and engineers). The indicators include measures of the supply of S&T human capital in terms of higher education graduates, and the scale of the human resources involved in research activities in general, as well as some key areas such as agriculture and ocean science.

  1. Research and development (R&D) and other S&T activities

These indicators relate to R&D as a key activity for knowledge creation. They cover overall investments in R&D as well as the relative importance of some key areas, such as health, agriculture and ocean science within national research efforts.  Some indicators would reflect policy priorities on the allocation of public R&D funds and assess broader S&T-based efforts that facilitate knowledge creation and absorption.

  1. Innovation processes and outputs

Indicators under this group focus on business innovation and consider innovation as a process as well as an output. They provide a broad measure of the prevalence of innovation activities within firms and linkages in innovation processes, as well as the outputs of inventive efforts.

  1. Knowledge exchange and transfer

This group includes indicators that focus on the flows of knowledge, including networks, partnerships, and collaboration activities. It also includes more traditional measures of international flows such as trade and transfers of technology or technical knowledge. Some of these indicators would measure the propensity to collaborate in scientific research through co-authorship of scientific publications as well as international co-invention as a measure of cross-border collaboration on inventive activities. Other potential indicators would focus on international technology diffusion embodied in trade flows, as well as transactions relating to trade in technical knowledge and knowledge-related services including patents, trademarks, technical services, etc.

Next steps

The initial proposal of the thematic set of STI indicators for the SDGs is now being completed and will go through a wide consultation process before being finalized. It is our hope that the end result will offer policymakers and statisticians an integrated approach covering all aspects of STI data collection and analysis, while raising awareness of the need to reinforce and support STI to achieve the world’s development goals.

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