First published in University World News

A new report reveals that global research is increasingly being redirected towards addressing poverty, reducing inequality and tackling the effects of climate change. 

But it finds that European nations dominate research focused on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with North America and Asia and Pacific regions contributing less; while Africa, the Arab States and Latin America are smaller participants, even though the SDGs are key concerns in these regions.

Released by the Institute for Scientific Information, part of Clarivate Analytics, on 2 April, the report provides an overview of the advancements being made by global research activity that is driving progress towards the 17 SDGs adopted by the UN member states in 2015.

The report, Navigating the Structure of Research on Sustainable Development Goals, is based on analysis of data in the Web of Science, the largest publisher-neutral citation index, covering 33,000 journals. The report’s authors are Masafumi Nakamura, David Pendlebury, Joshua Schnell and Martin Szomszor.

Using the term ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ in the title, abstract or keyword of all indexed documents in the Web of Science, some 2,800 documents were identified as the ‘core’ documents. This collection was expanded by adding publications that were citing one or more of the core documents related to and concerning the topics. 

The annual count of documents identified by this method found fewer than 100 papers per year before 2010, rising to more than 500 core papers in 2016, the year after the publication of the 17 SDGs, and a wider dataset of 4,000 cited papers in 2018.

From a literature-based analysis of research related to the SDGs, the report describes the methodology used, lists the major topics uncovered, surveys research themes of particular focus for nations producing at least a moderate output of SDG-related papers, and tallies regional patterns of collaboration in SDG research. 

Progress is tracked through 232 identifiable indicators spread across the 17 main goals. The analysis using data from the Web of Science is not only an overview, but also confirms a redirection of research towards the UN’s shared goals and it describes the focus of research around particular areas as it is based on papers directly pertaining to the SDGs. 

The entire collection of ‘core’ and ‘citing’ papers numbers around 10,300 unique documents. By an analysis labelled ‘bibliographic coupling’, a clustering of documents with common themes were worked out, identifying dominant clusters in the published papers.

Sustainable Development Goal topic map

Based on these indicators a Sustainable Development Goal topic map has been created. 

The major research clusters are sustainability definitions, indicators and assessment and economic indicators and models of sustainability.

The report says an important difference between this analysis, focusing on papers explicitly dealing with the UN SDGs, and other scientometric studies on sustainability science in general is the prominence of health and healthcare research, underrepresented in previous analyses. 

The report says: “Our map reveals the extent of health and healthcare research related to the SDGs is nearly as great as the volume of research on the environment and agricultural aspects of sustainability.”

The map also shows how clusters of associated research papers relate to one another.

In addition to the trend of European nations dominating SDG research, the following themes are identified:

  • • Some of the most influential researchers are spread across subject areas due to their transdisciplinary knowledge, others are concentrating focus in one area.

  • • Not only the largest institutions are setting the agenda in a speciality. Key players in ‘ecosystem services and adaptations for sustainability’ include Stockholm and Wageningen universities.

  • • Some clusters are growing at a significantly higher rate of increase in publications during 2015-18, such as ‘nutrition and child development’.

The report includes a focus on the activity in the United Kingdom in SDG research, including rating of research areas in which the UK produces the greatest number of papers. It finds that the cluster ‘neglected tropical diseases’ is nearly four times the amount expected due to the UK being home to long-standing excellence in tropical diseases in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford.

David Pendlebury, head of research analysis at the Institute for Scientific Information and co-author of the report, said: “The UN Sustainable Development Goals represent some of the biggest challenges humanity faces, from ending poverty to dealing with the effects of climate change, aiming to transform the world in just 15 years. 

“We have used the data in the Web of Science to confirm that research is being redirected towards these shared goals and identified key themes in global research and discovery. Our analysis will be of interest to policy-makers and funders alike in supporting evidence-based decision-making.” 

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