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November 22, 2010
Spending and Publishing
Since we were talking about worldwide scientific productivity here the other day, this article in The Economist is timely. They're talking about the share of worldwide R&D (and papers published) by country, and pointing out that the longtime order seems to be changing.
For sheer scientific publications,that order is, of course, the US and Western Europe, followed distantly by everyone else. I've reproduced two graphs from the article, atrocious color schemes and all, and you can see how large the gap has been in the published-paper count.. But there are several interesting features. Note how back in the early 1980s, Russia and Japan were quite similar, but the old Soviet Union (and its successor Russian state) was on the decline even then. Meanwhile, China has come up from nowhere to overtake even Japan. India, South Korea, and Brazil are down in the single digits.
But that brings up some other questions. Take a look at the second graph, on R&D spending as a % of GDP. (This is over a shorter time scale than the paper graph, so adjust your perspective accordingly). Note that Japan has been leading the way here, with South Korea catching up. Neither of them (especially South Korea) publish as much, though, as you'd think, given this investment - is the rest of it going into patents? Or staying inside the labs? Looked at another way, though, the EU is publishing even more than you'd think, given their R&D spending.
You'll see that China is coming up in the spending world, although they're not rising as steeply as South Korea (no one is). India's pretty flat, though, and are being outspent, on this basis, by Brazil. (I hope I'm reading the various shades of aquamarine, teal, and blue-green correctly - you know, the Economist used to be good at presenting information graphically, but whoever let this one through should be whacked on the head).
Neither of these measures is an end in itself. I'd say that robust R&D spending is necessary (but not sufficient) for a country to produce good results. And there are probably a lot of different ways to count things as R&D or not, which we aren't seeing here. As for publications, they're an even rougher measure, since different countries have different cultures (and incentives) for this sort of thing. (Don't forget language barriers, either). And as everyone knows, there are papers and there are papers. Long lists of junk that no one ever reads would be one way to inflate things, but to what good?
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