Europe and the USA face a more competitive environment

According to the UNESCO Science Report 2005, the USA remains remarkably dynamic at the dawn of the new Millennium. It alone represents more than one-third of the world's scientific activity (35.0%), compared to just 5% of the world population and 22% of world GDP. The USA's share of world expenditure on R&D (GERD) has nevertheless been slightly eroded in recent years: it is down from 35.6% in 1997.

Europe's world share of GERD is likewise diminishing (28.8% in 1997 and 27.3% in 2002), although the continent has actually strengthened its hold on scientific publications, from 41.2% of the total in 1991 to 46.1% in 2001. Similarly, the European Union's (EU's) share of world GERD has slipped, from 25.2% in 1997 to 23.6% in 2002, but its world share of publications has risen, from 36.1% in 1991 to 40.3% in 2001. In 2002, Europe represented 28% of world GDP (the EU contributing 23%) and 13% (7%) of the world population.

The entry of 10 new Member States in 2004 - thereby swelling the EU's population by 75 million (or 20%) to 455 million (compared to 288 million in the USA) - offers fresh opportunities for intra-European research but also reinforces disparities. The new members are: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Not one of them measures up to the EU15 average of 1.9% (GERD/GDP ratio), itself well below the R&D effort of the USA (2.8%) and Japan (3.1%).

Globalization is offering new opportunities through greater international cooperation but also creating a more competitive environment. Even in the USA, 'research universities face increasing international competition, despite their high quality', notes the report. Over the past decade, Asia's world share of scientific publications has grown from 16.2% to 22.5% and Europe (see above) has overtaken the USA (39.4% in 1991 and 32.7% in 2001). This said, 'if one limits this survey to publications and citations in the highest impact journals, the USA remains very much in the lead'.

The USA could be described as 'Japan's opposite', insofar as it shows a strong leaning towards research in life sciences and Earth/space sciences but accords a low priority to physics/materials science and chemistry. The EU, on the other hand, maintains a balance in all six scientific fields.

The 10 new members should enhance the EU's dominant position in publications, as their strengths lie in chemistry, physics and mathematics. However, at a time when Europe is losing ground in technology, the new members are unlikely to make a difference in this area. In terms of technology and innovation, the USA remains unrivalled.

This said, even US companies 'are running harder to succeed against global competitors in technology'. Moreover, after strong growth for decades, industrial R&D in the USA has got off to a slow start in the new century: expenditure has declined three years in a row and 'more companies [were] planning to reduce R&D expenditure [in 2004] than to increase it', according to an Industrial Research Institute survey.

One universal factor emerging from the report is the importance of the private sector in sustaining R&D. The report cautions, however, that, since such funding is inevitably oriented towards short- and medium-term applications seeking rapid returns on investment, basic research everywhere needs to be able to rely on consistent public funding: even in the USA, 60% of all university research is funded by the federal government.

One handicap for Europe is the duplication of research, owing to the large number of research bodies compared to the USA. 'There seems to be agreement on the need for a European Research Council … which would create a 'uniform attractive force for the best scientists'.

The relative weakness of private sector involvement in research is another reason why Europe is lagging behind North America overall. The report notes that only 56% of R&D funding in the 15-member EU came from industry in 2001, compared to 66% and 69% in the USA and Japan respectively. In this context, the EU's declared goal of seeing its Member States devote 3.0% of GDP to GERD by 2010 seems overambitious, especially as two-thirds of this funding is to come from industry.

A number of European States are nevertheless leaders in innovation. Sweden tops the list, followed by Finland, Switzerland, the UK and Denmark. Sweden and Finland share the distinction of having small populations (circa 9 million and 5 million respectively) and of devoting two of the highest percentages of GDP to R&D in the world: 4.3% and 3.4% respectively. Elsewhere in Europe, observes the report, Germany, the Netherlands and France are losing momentum in innovation, even as Portugal, Romania, and Turkey, among others, are narrowing the gap.

Spotlight on Turkey…

One country to watch in coming years will be Turkey (70 million inhabitants), whose 'relative growth of 9% per annum is one of the better rates in the world'. Between 1990 and 2000, GERD trebled to US$ 2 749 million (0.6% of GDP). The business sector's share of R&D funding has also grown, from 31% in 1993 to 43% in 2001. Publications by Turkish scientists trebled between 1997 and 2002 and high-tech exports have come to represent 3% of total exports, after growing at a much greater pace (43%) than high-tech imports (16%) in the five years to 2001.

… and on the Russian Federation

Like Central and Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation is gradually recovering from the painful transition to a market economy following the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. After slipping from 2% to below 1% of GDP in the mid-1990s, GERD in the Russian Federation has now climbed back to 1.3% of GDP (2002). Civil R&D was allocated 15% more from the federal budget in 2004 than the previous year and, as scientists emerge from isolation, the Russian Federation's share of scientific publications is growing (2.1% of the world total in 1991 and 3.6% in 2001).

The socio-economic trauma of transition to a market economy led to a veritable haemorrhage of researchers in the Russian Federation and former satellite states of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, through both internal and external brain drain. The number of Russian researchers, for instance, shrank from 878 000 in 1991 to 519 000 in 1995 (World Science Report 1998), before stabilizing at around 492 000 (2002).

Today, the Russian Federation represents the fourth-biggest pool of researchers in the world, behind the USA, China and Japan. The socio-economic status of Russian researchers remains low, however, and each disposes of much less funding for R&D than his or her counterparts in developed countries.

The Russian Federation is now entering the innovation market, despite problems which impinge on the country's competitiveness, such as inertia in modernizing heavy industries inherited from the Soviet era or in adapting the country's intellectual property law to the market economy. By 2001, 27% of Russian entities performing R&D were privately owned.

This summary of the current state of science in Europe and the USA is taken from an article on the UNESCO Science Report 2005 which appeared in UNESCO's quarterly newsletter, A World of Science, in April 2006

Read a summary of the findings in the UNESCO Science Report 2005 concerning other regions:

Science is booming in Asia

‘Latin America and the Caribbean just not getting it together’

Better prospects for Africa and the Arab States?

Back to top