Global inequalities in science are bigger than those in the economy

Original post by Witold Kieńć

[Note from Nate Breznau] This post originally appeared in DeGruyter’s blog. I had assigned it as a reading in my course, but when I followed the link recently it did not appear and resolved instead to the home page of the blog. I searched within the blog but it did not turn up. Did DeGruyter remove it? I also am unnable to find the author of the post as his website seems to no longer exist (according to what I think is his OSF page). [update] I Tweeted to them initially and they were quick to respond.

As their blog is discontinued original blog post as recovered from the Internet Archive.

Global inequalities in science are even bigger than those in the economy. Of course, to afford food is more important than to contribute to scientific discussion. Thus results of inequalities are less dramatic in case of scientific research, however, the case of Ebola might be worth to think over here. This pathogen was detected for the first time in 1976, quite a long time ago. Would the current therapy method for the disease that it causes be the same if it had been discovered in Alaska?

The lion’s share of all scientific articles published in established academic journals comes from a small number of countries, and some of these leading countries are really small and rich, when seen from a global perspective. According to World Bank Data, there were more than 21 thousand papers indexed by the Science Citation Index and Social Sciences Citation Index in 2013 that were published by Swiss researchers. This means that Switzerland was able to produce 2,603 top level papers for each one million of its inhabitants. Denmark, second in this ranking, achieved the result of 2,223 papers per million people, so 15% worse. The visualization of number of papers per million inhabitants on the global map shows the indubitable hegemony of rich, northern countries in science.

Reconstruction of original figure using the original figure thumbnail in a Google image search.

A country’s scientific publishing output per million people correlates very strongly with Gross Domestic Product per capita (Spearman 0.84!). In short, you have to be rich to have a significant input to science. This might be nothing new for you, but what is quite surprising for me, is that global inequalities in science are bigger than those in the economy.

I have calculated the Gini coefficient for 4 of the “development indicators” provided by the World Bank. First is the market capitalization of listed domestic companies, so commercial value of companies registered in a country, which I expected to be the most unequal on a global scale. The second one is Gross Domestic Product, that is a well established indicator of welfare and is known to be extremely unevenly distributed globally. I have also chosen electric power consumption, which is also a good indicator of general consumption level. The fourth indicator is the number of articles indexed by Thosmon Rueters services (this data is provided by the World Bank as well). All indicators were divided by the number of country’s inhabitants and then the Gini index was calculated.

In the result, I realized that the contribution to the scientific core is even more unequally distributed among countries than GDP and values of companies. And this is the most unevenly distributed factor that I have analysed. Countries are more equal in respect of their share in the global wealth than in their impact on global scientific discussion.

A lot of work has been done to inform citizens of Europe and North America about the dramatic scale of global inequalities. However, these inequalities are so big, that average people from wealthy countries still do not fully understand what it means “to live below the absolute poverty line”. So please, now try to imagine that inequalities in science are even bigger than that. Of course, to afford food is more important than to contribute to scientific discussion. Thus, the results of inequalities are less dramatic in the case of scientific research, however, the case of Ebola might be worth thinking about here. This pathogen was detected for the first time in 1976, so quite a long time ago. Would the current therapy method for disease that it causes be the same if it had been discovered on Alaska? The Ebola virus is the extreme and rare case, a lot of science has less to do with life or death issues.

However, my comparison to the drastically uneven world of global economy may let you imagine how different the chances of researchers from the Global South are from their colleagues in the Northern Countries. And factors that support hegemony of the North are not only economical ones. There are significant cultural and social barriers that enhance the unequal status quo (have a look here).

Social insurance: global, exclusive, overstated as an institution

The introduction of work-injury insurance is seen by many welfare state scholars as a pivotal moment in each country’s history. It created two new institutional features of societies.

1. Work-related risks were re-framed as affecting all of society rather than individual, familial or employer-specific risks. They were redefined as social risks – those that inevitably face all of society across time and space.

2. The state took on the role of arbiter of social risks, by developing, mandating and regulating risk-pooling in the form of social insurance – nationally mandated, regulated and/or provided insurance. A process that usually started with regulating work-related accidents.

“Accidents no longer seemed an interpersonal matter to be sorted out between workers and employers in court. Instead, they became a social problem and a target for social policy.”

(Moses 2018:4)

After its late 18th Century origins in Europe, work-injury laws in the form of social insurance were written into the law books of nearly every country in the world.

Fig 1. The introduction of social insurance for blue-collar workers by year.
Source: Global Work-Injury Database (GWIP) (Breznau and Lanver 2020)

Fig 1. visually demonstrates that after 1990 social insurance for work accidents covers most of the globe. Fig 1. visually understates the prominence of these laws. For example, in the U.S. where there is no national work-injury insurance, nearly all states have their own social insurance laws for work-injury.

The institutionalization of social risk in the hands of national policy appears widespread, but a careful look at coverage suggests it is perhaps not as strong or as widespread as welfare state scholars often claim.

In the Global North, the legal coverage of work-injury law is 69% of the labor force on average, whereas in the Global South it is only 37% (for those 169 countries for which data are available). There are some extreme outliers in the Global South with less than 6% coverage. As shown in Fig 2., many countries have very weak coverage as of 2010, despite having social insurance laws.

Fig 2. The legal coverage of work-injury insurance in 2010
Source: Global Programme Employment Injury Insurance and Protection Data (GEIP) (ILO 2014)

Given the prevalence of laws explicitly targeting the industrial, blue-collar workforce of so many countries, it is surprising that the coverage rates among the formal labor market are so low.

A main cause of this is lack of enforcement mechanisms. Many of these laws require extensive legal and governmental institutions. Infrastructure, bureaucracy, a system of enforcement thorough inspections, safe reporting possibilities for workers and measures that prevent corruption of funds or executions of justice tend to be weaker in the Global South.

Another reason is through clauses that all implementation on the whim of certain officials, additional laws that undermine national social insurance laws, or a lack of de facto punishments for not following laws.

Myanmar and Bangladesh are two cases that help illustrate these points. Both involve high density garment factory production. Myanmar enacted social insurance for workers in 2012, but the coverage for work accidents is less than 6% of the labor force. How is this possible when the law explicitly states “compulsory registration” in the social insurance system for employers? One possible answer is in the wording of certain clauses in the law. For example:

“The President may… exempt the regions which is not yet necessary to implement currently according to the plan to be implemented all or any part of the provisions contained in this Law or any establishment applied by this Law or any type of employer or worker.”

Myanmar Social Security Law, 2012, Art. (99)

Governments regularly grant exempt legal statuses to industries that are deeply embedded in global supply chains, industries that arguably would not be located in their countries if the cost of operation were too high. This might explain why Bangladesh did not bother to implement social insurance and instead relies on outdated forms of work-injury laws such as employer liability and a provident fund.

In 1980, the Bangladesh government passed the Export Processing Zones Act which created geographic areas that were no longer under the jurisdiction of national law and instead controlled directly by the president’s office. This meant that work-injury laws did not apply to all the ‘sweatshops’ feeding the global demand for inexpensive garments. With such an exception in place, the introduction of a social insurance law would not make any difference in coverage or addressing risk, unless it overrides the exemptions granted to special regions, those that can be granted in Myanmar on the whim of the president.

There have been horrific accidents in Bangladesh, with the collapse of the Rana Plaza as one of the worst in human history. This led to new coordinated plans between the industrial stakeholders, the Bangladesh government and the ILO, but it remains to be seen if the coverage rate increased from 12.5% – where it stood in 2014. Given the capacity for corollary laws to undermine social insurance laws, it remains doubtful. This suggests that the underlying normative notion of social risk and the government’s role as insurance arbiter it has not been institutionalized in Bangladeshi society and politics the way it has among many Global North countries.

With such low rates of coverage, the idea that social risks and welfare states are institutionalized at a global level may be overstated. Yes, laws are prevalent (see Fig. 1), but, no, they do not actually address the risks affecting nearly all workers (see Fig. 2) for a variety of reasons. As such they do not address social risk and may nurture sociological and path dependent institutions where work-related risks are normatively embedded as an individual or family risk rather than a social risk.

Data sources and replication files available on GitHub.

[1] Young coal miners (left), Bangladesh garment workers (upper-right), Uganda textile workers (lower-right)


Breznau, Nate, and Felix Lanver. 2020. “Global Work-Injury Policy Database (GWIP).” Harvard Dataverse.

ILO. 2014. “Global Programme Employment Injury Insurance and Protection | GEIP Data.”

Moses, Julia. 2018. The First Modern Risk: Workplace Accidents and the Origins of European Social States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Talking inequality to your politically mixed US American family

My family is a mixture of Democrats, Republicans and swing voters. This can make for interesting emails, calls or reunions. It seems clear to me that partisan discussions, especially involving blame, are a no go. In fact, family in-fighting is pretty much like public in-fighting. It distracts us from some of our common problems. Like the unbridled increase in income and wealth inequality in the United States since the late 1970s. Especially the top 1%. The question is how to find common ground when one or both sides are past their breaking points.

I suggest three things that would benefit almost any American, except for the ultra rich (top 1%) or relatively rich (top 10%). These are things that encroach on freedom without touching on more polarizing topics.

1. End the winner-take-all electoral system. Why should the winner take all, when the winner is rich people? Low and middle-class workers have not had a real wage increase since the 1970s on average, but wall street provided huge profits.

There is nothing wrong with profits, but shouldn’t everyone working at profiting companies profit? A similar story unfolds in politics. The upper classes control both parties. Republicans favor the ultra-rich, and Democrats favor the quite-rich in general. We do not have parties that represent all voters’ interests. If you are lower to lower-middle class, these parties are both against you, for the most part. If you support the Tea Party, Libertarian, Social Democrats, Green Party, or other parties, you have no chance to get representation in government at the national level. We need a representative democracy where parties get power that equals their vote share. If Republicans get 55% of the vote they should get 55% of the legislative and executive positions. That is real democracy, where the government reflects the preferences of the people. When parties get proportional vote shares, they are forced to work together to solve problems. More than half of those who identify as Republicans and Democrats favored having a third party in a recent Gallup poll.

The two party system is now so deeply divided that democracy itself is faltering. The abuse of power the Constitution hoped to prevent is now rampant with executive dominance, a Supreme Court of partisan judges, and deep segregation of voter districts due to gerrymandering. Adding more parties will instantly restore coalitions and cooperation.

2. End Super PACs. This is how both parties came to be dominated by rich-peoples’ interests.

Citizens United and made it possible that parties and candidates can get unlimited secret funding. This raised the stakes so high that the only way to get elected is to have over 1 billion dollars, or to accept donations to equal 1 billion dollars (that is one thousand times one million dollars – a $hit ton! The only way to get such big donations is to promise things to the rich that benefit them. In more plain English, this is known as corruption, by definition. These are simply ‘legal’ bribes being paid to politicians, made legal because of Citizens United. 

“for the first time since at least the 1960s, the majority of Americans were not in the middle class”

– PEW Research Center

3. Overturn the 1987 repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine. Political conflict is an opportunity to create economic conflict.

Until 1987, news companies were legally bound to report news in a balanced manner, providing different sides of each story. Today they are allowed to say anything they want and claim it as ‘fact’ without any repercussion. All of our political and factual beliefs have been shaped by distortions of reality. For example, try this on for size at the next mixed-political gathering. Obama, what many political news agencies call the ‘socialist-Muslim’, was actually a relatively hawkish military president. He was the first president in history to have an American citizen assassinated without any trial. He also give a large pay and benefit raise to the military and made aggressive moves of the US to contain China militaristically and economically. These facts might perk the attention of even the most ‘libtard’-hating-family-members. But that is not my main point here. The media outlets are mostly owned by corporations with special interests in keeping you and I fighting over politics, so that corporations can keep paying low wages. The news in the US sows seeds of hate and misinformation so that working-class people end up in constant conflict. This conflict keeps the focus away from the ultra-wealthy making decisions that harm them, such as paying them miserable wages with low benefits. Why not end fake news?

In case you are not sure, what not to do. Abortion, gun control, racism, blame of any sort. Not gonna go over well in mixed political company. If you are not ultra wealthy, we are on the same side in the things that matter most – like getting fair wages for fair work.

Notes to the reader:

As news media companies tend to be on one side or the other, I tried to use neutral sources as much as possible in this post.

Full disclosure. I have never voted Republican. But I am no fan of the Democrats either. Having to choose the lesser of two evils is not an exciting political reality to face. Especially while watching the rich get richer, and the working-class continually get the shaft.

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