» The USA and Europe still lead the global science research effort, but their future is uncertain says UNESCO re...
08.11.2010 - UNESCOPRESS

The USA and Europe still lead the global science research effort, but their future is uncertain says UNESCO report

North America and the European Union (EU) continue to lead the world research effort in science, but the global recession and the growing economic strength of Asia are combining to challenge the traditional dominance of North over South in science and technology. These are some of the findings revealed in the UNESCO Science Report 2010, presented at the Organization’s Paris headquarters on 10 November, to coincide with World Science Day. The report presents a global overview of recent trends in both research and development and higher education, including via chapters devoted to the USA, Canada, the European Union, Southeast Europe and Turkey.

Between 2002 and 2007, the USA invested more in research and development than all the other G7 countries combined, contributing 53% (in 2006) of all R&D spending in the G7. It also leads in terms of scientific publications registered in the Science Citation Index, the number of new patents and new doctoral graduates. But there are signs that this long-established picture is changing. While the USA still has the highest scientific output of any country in terms of publications, its world share (28%) has fallen more than any other country in the past six years. Similarly, while the USA dominates the patents market, with 42% of the stock registered with the patent offices of the USA, European Union and Japan in 2006, this is down from 44% in 2002. And, although there are plenty of new scientists coming onto the job market in the USA, 36% of new doctorates in science and engineering in 2005 were awarded to foreign students studying at American universities, mostly from Asia, compared to 21% in 1985.

Indeed, says the UNESCO report, “the future of R&D in the USA is cloudy.” This is despite President Barack Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Initiative, which assigns a key role to R&D, and the President’s pledge in April 2009 to increase GERD from the present 2.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 3% by the time he leaves office. As the effects of the global recession begin to bite, says the report, “any increase in federal funding is likely to be offset by cuts in the private sector and state-funded R&D.”

    A similar picture emerges for the European Union as a whole, although, with 27 Member States since 2007, the region shows extreme heterogeneity between countries. On a range of performance indicators, says the report, the European Union can now be divided into “leaders, followers and stragglers,” with “a yawning gap” between the richest and poorest members. While, for the two most recent members, Bulgaria and Romania, who joined in 2007, gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) as a proportion of GDP is 0.5%, Finland and Sweden spend over 3.4%.

    The European Union, as a region, is still the “undisputed leader” in terms of its share (36.5%) of scientific publications, although this is down from 39.6% in 2002, mostly because of a doubling of China’s share from 5.2% to 10.6% over the same period. But, says the report, the European Union “is struggling to increase expenditure on R&D and to develop innovation.” It is now widely admitted that it will not meet its target of devoting 3% of GDP to R&D by 2010, as agreed in Lisbon in 2000. This is partly because the private sector, which was expected to meet two-thirds of the increase, has been hard-hit by the global recession. Moreover, in contrast to the USA, recovery packages in some countries, such as that adopted by the U.K., provide few incentives for R&D.

    In order to compete globally in science and technology, the EU has long realised the need to pool its resources. The report highlights the importance of some of the joint ‘big science’ facilities in Europe, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), with its cutting-edge Large Hadron Collider, the world-class European Molecular Biology Laboratory and the European Space Agency. Meanwhile, the industrial collaboration between France, Germany, Spain and the UK has spawned Airbus, which now produces about half of the world’s jet airliners. Other collaborative projects have partners outside the EU, such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), based in Cadarache (France), which is also backed by China, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea, Russian Federation and the USA. Tagged the “most ambitious project in collaborative science ever conceived,” it will cost 10 billion euros to build and run for its anticipated lifetime.

    Despite holding their lead in R&D by a number of yardsticks, the USA and the European Union still have a long way to go when it comes to the share of women researchers in science and engineering. In the EU, there are massive differences between Member States, with some traditional R&D strongholds falling below the EU average of 30%, such as Germany (18%) and France (28%), while some of the most recent members are setting the example, such as Lithuania (49%) and Latvia (47%). In the USA, even with efforts to convince more women and ethnic minorities to seek careers in science and engineering, they still hit a “glass ceiling” as they attempt to advance in their careers. Moreover, only 19.8% of PhDs in engineering and 30.6% in the physical sciences are gained by women, compared to 53% in life sciences.

    The Science Report was written by a team of international experts. It presents an overview of global trends in science and technology, based on a wide range of qualitative and quantitative indicators. It is divided into chapters devoted to the various regions, with spotlights on certain individual countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Japan, republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Turkey and USA). The four previous UNESCO science reports were published in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2005.

“I am convinced that, more than ever, regional and international scientific co-operation is crucial to addressing the interrelated, complex and growing global challenges with which we are confronted,” states Ms Bokova in the foreword to the Report. Increasingly, international diplomacy will take the form of science diplomacy in the years to come. “In this respect, UNESCO must and will pursue its efforts to strengthen international partnerships and co-operation, in particular South–South co-operation. This science dimension of diplomacy was one of the original reasons for including science in UNESCO’s mandate. It has fundamental significance for UNESCO nowadays, at a time when science has tremendous power to shape the future of humanity and when it no longer makes much sense to design science policy in purely national terms.”

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