Science is booming in Asia

The UNESCO Science Report 2005 examines the state of science and technology (S&T) around the world. 'The most remarkable trend is to be found in Asia', notes the report, 'where GERD has grown from a world share of 27.9% in 1997 to 31.5% in 2002'. This dynamism is driven largely by China which, in 2002, counted more researchers (811 000) than Japan (647 000), even if Japan has far more researchers per million inhabitants (5085) than China (633). In the space of just five years, China has gone from contributing 3.9% of world expenditure on research and development (GERD) to 8.7%, a greater share than Germany (6.7%). The world share of Japan, on the other hand, has declined over the same period, from 15.2% of GERD to 12.8%.

Chinese expenditure on R&D more than tripled between 1997 and 2002, from US$21 billion to US$72 billion. The reason for this steep rise lies not only in China's strong, sustained economic growth but also in its stronger commitment to R&D: 0.8% of GDP in 1999 and 1.2% of GDP in 2002, with plans to increase this proportion to 1.5% of GDP by 2005. China's biggest neighbour, India, itself crossed the 1% threshold in 2004 and plans to raise its own expenditure on R&D to 2% of GDP in coming years. The economies of both China and India grew by close to 10% in 2005.

In its five-year plan to 2005, China listed information technology, biotechnology, new materials technology, advanced manufacturing technology, aerospace and aeronautics as all being fields 'in which China should aim for breakthroughs'.

Patents granted by China have nearly doubled in just four years (to 132 000 in 2002). However, whereas invention accounted for 73% of patents granted by China to foreigners in 2001, it accounted for just 5% of those granted by China to local residents, the great majority falling into the two remaining categories of utility model and design.

'The emergence of China is not yet reflected in patent statistics', notes the report, a trend less surprising than it may seem, as patents are indicative of a mature business environment and China's Company Law dates back only to 1993. High-tech goods currently make up just 21% of China's manufactured exports (enough nevertheless to place China seventh worldwide in terms of volume. According to Chinese statistics, these high-tech exports fall into the categories of computers and telecommunications, life sciences, electronics, weaponry, computer-integrated manufacturing, aeronautics and space, opto-electronic technology, nuclear technology, biotechnology and materials design 'At the same time, the dynamics are clearly visible', observes the report. China now imports more scientific instruments, electronics and telecommunications products and electrical machinery than Japan'.

High-tech goods have come to represent as much as 72% of Filipino manufactured exports, 50% of the total in Malaysia and 32% in Thailand. This remarkable feat is explained by the fact that 'multinationals and companies in developed countries have been stepping up original equipment manufacture operations in Asian countries'.

Asia's world share of scientific publications has grown from 16.2% to 22.5% over the past decade, the report reveals. Both China and the newly industrialized Asian economies have nearly tripled their world share, from 1.4% to 4.1% of the total.. India has now been overtaken by China in terms of publications registered in the Science Citation Index of the Institute of Scientific Information (USA). Over the past five years, S&T policy in India has focused on intellectual property management favourable to patents. However, with scientific publications stagnating, this strategy is now being questioned in Indian S&T circles.

Brain drain continues to plague many Asian countries. Even India, which can boast of remarkable achievements in software development (India's software market quadrupled in value to US$20 billion between 1997 and 2003), 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 may be one bulwark against brain drain but is not sufficient in itself to overcome the problem. The example of China, where 'approximately one-third of those who go abroad are returning every year', illustrates that higher development at home constitutes the single most effective magnet for attracting researchers back to their country of birth.

This summary of Asian science is taken from an article which appeared in UNESCO's quarterly newsletter, A World of Science, in April 2006

Read also the press release on the UNESCO Science Report 2005 of 18 January 2006

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

‘Latin America and the Caribbean just not getting it together

’Europe and the USA face a more competitive environment

Better prospects for Africa and the Arab States?

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