On The Brute Force Of Science Funding Numbers

In what might feed an installment of the Conan recurring segment “Why China is Kicking Our Ass” a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concludes that China may surpass the United States in R&D spending.  The 2014 edition of the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook predicts that with squeezed research and development budgets in other advanced economies, that China should be come tops around 2019.

While this likely won’t stop the nationalistic rending of garments by some in the U.S. Congress (who likely won’t loosen the purse strings to try and match Chinese gains), it’s worth taking a deep breath to think about what it means for the Chinese to be spending more on R&D than other countries.  Yes, the charts control for purchasing power, so it has controlled for differences in currency strength.  It is not the same measure as R&D intensity (research and development spending as a percentage of the gross national product).  On that front, South Korea, which spends 4.36 percent of its GNP on research and development, has much more intensive R&D than any OECD country, or China.

But all of this focuses on inputs.  We do not know how effective China (or any country, for that matter) will be in converting its research and development money into valued scientific outputs and/or societal outcomes.  I’ve written here about the corruption in the Chinese research enterprise.  Not that the United States is free from fraud, waste and/or abuse in scientific research, but the nature of Chinese cases suggests that the accepted norms of proper research conduct have not be as widely diffused in China as in other countries.

Ultimately, the closing of a research spending gap is a trend worth noting.  But to try and compare equal spending across countries as equivalent to quality of research across countries ignores the highly variable local contexts in which research happens.  If countries are to try and fight the closing of this gap, they ought to consider more variables than spending.

Using measures like R&D spending, particularly in isolation, strikes me as disconnected from the reality (and complexity) of creating scientific and technical knowledge.  After all, three years ago one could argue that Iran was on its way to being a science superpower based on its publication numbers.



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