United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
China challenges dominance of USA, Europe and Japan in scientific research according to UNESCO Science Report 2005

Remarkable growth in a small number of emerging Asian economies, led by China, is challenging the leadership of North America, Europe and Japan in research and development (R&D), according to the newly published UNESCO Science Report 2005*. The report, written by an international team of independent experts, analyses the development of science and technology around the world, with a wealth of data that is both quantitative and qualitative.

The report says that “the most remarkable trend is to be found in Asia, where gross expenditure on R&D has grown from a world share of 27.9% in 1997 to 31.5% in 2002”. This dynamism is largely driven by China where, in 2002, there were more researchers than in Japan, 810,000 and 646,500 respectively.

Expenditure on R&D in China climbed from 0.83% of GDP in 1999 to 1.23% in 2002. China listed information technology, biotechnology, new materials technology, advanced manufacturing technology, aerospace and aeronautics as priorities in which it aims for breakthroughs. In 2002, China spent 75.1% of gross expenditure on R&D on experimental development, 19.2% on applied research, and just 5.73% on basic research.

North America still represents more than one third of the world’s scientific activity, but this share is diminishing: North America accounted for 37.0% of the US$ 830 billion world expenditure on R&D in 2002, down from 38.2% in 1997. “For Europe, the corresponding figures are 28.8% in 1997 and 27.3% in 2002,” according to the report, while “Latin America and the Caribbean, Oceania and Africa, these each account for just a fraction of the total, at respectively 2.6% (down from 3.1% in 1997), 1.1% (stable) and 0.6% (stable).”

In his foreword to the report, the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura welcomes the arrival of new players on the global science scene. Noting the growing role of newly industrialized Asian countries, he nevertheless cautions that “with hundreds of millions of Asian children still living in poverty, the benefits of R&D are still not reaching large segments of the population who are deprived of such basics as good nutrition, access to safe water, sanitation and shelter.”

Global trends affecting science and technology worldwide are highlighted in the report’s comprehensive introduction. One of these new trends is the ability of a small number of new players to make their mark on science and research. Turkey is included in this group alongside the newly industrialized countries of Asia, and a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The report postulates that science and technology are the driving force behind economic and social progress. Thus, it argues, “half a hectare of land and one year of labour were required to feed one person in 1900 whereas that same half-hectare now feeds 10 persons on the basis of just one and a half days of labour. The difference,” it says, “lies in the scientific knowledge that went into developing better fertilizers, machinery, seed and crop varieties, crop rotation schemes and so on. To capitalize on the added value of science-based knowledge, applied to virtually all areas of human activity, means striving to create knowledge societies, i.e. societies with science-based knowledge.”

Globalization is shown to offer new opportunities through increased international cooperation. This is “not only helping countries to catch up, but is also becoming indispensable to the very exercise of science.” But globalization is also bringing new challenges and greater competition. The report furthermore takes stock of challenges relating to new areas of research, for instance the controversy surrounding the question of patenting genes.

Brain drain continues to affect many countries, notes the report. Even countries like India, which has remarkable achievements in software development, space, biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, still sees many of its highly trained graduates lured abroad, mainly to the USA. This shows that having a strong university system is not enough to overcome the problem of brain drain. According to the report, higher development at home constitutes the single most effective magnet for attracting researchers back to their country of birth.

The report is divided into regional chapters that also profile selected countries within those regions. Moreover, three chapters provide in-depth case studies on the USA, the Russian Federation and Japan.

By examining trends at the national, regional and international levels, the report allows for a better identification of the forces at play and areas of concern. Some universal factors emerge. One concerns the importance of the private sector in sustaining R&D. But the report cautions that such funding is inevitably oriented towards short- and medium-term applications seeking rapid returns on investment. This is why basic research everywhere needs to rely on consistent public funding and why a strong national policy remains essential to maintaining a coherent national science sector.

The importance of a national vision is underscored in the report. In Africa, for example, the science and technology market is dominated by international donors, aid programmes and multinational companies. The incentives they provide to African researchers bear little fruit because they are not matched by national science and technology systems able to offer careers. Similarly, in the Arab region, the main input to technology comes from turnkey investments by large foreign companies and the technology thus brought fails to take root. Even in Latin American countries with a more developed science and technology sector, caution is recommended where international collaboration is concerned: “this should bring not merely technology transfer but also capacity-building,” advises the report.

The relative weakness of the European private sector involvement in research is one of the reasons why Europe is lagging behind the USA. The report notes that only 56% of R&D funding in the European Union came from industry in 2001, compared to 66% and 69% respectively in the USA and Japan (2000). The duplication of research in Europe, due to its many research institutions compared to the USA, is also cited as a handicap.

Despite these drawbacks, a number of European States figure as leaders in a table ranking countries’ position in terms of innovation in science and technology research. Sweden comes first in this table, ahead of Japan and the USA, which are in turn followed by Finland, Switzerland, the UK, and Denmark. In terms of innovation, Germany, the Netherlands and France are losing momentum, whereas countries such as Romania, Portugal and Turkey are narrowing the gap.

The UNESCO Science Report 2005 is the fourth in a series and follows on the World Science Report 1998, published by UNESCO ahead of the World Conference on Science (Budapest 1999).

Printed copies of the report are available upon request.
The report is also accessible to the media online.

* The UNESCO Science Report 2005 is sold by UNESCO Publishing

Source Press Release N°2006-03
Website 1 (URL) UNESCO Publishing
Editorial Contact: Roni Amelan, Press Relations Section, tel +33 (0)1 45 68 16 50
- Email r.amelan@unesco.org
Publication Date 18 Jan 2006
Keywords Natural Sciences,Science Policy
© UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 31407