They say that "investing in basic scientific research seem[s] to be the best way a middle-income country can foment fast economic growth", although they found no direct cause and effect between basic science and economic development.
Instead, they believe that investment in basic sciences — as indicated by the proportion of published articles in these fields — reveals a rational, decision-making atmosphere within a country and among its leaders, as well as promoting economic growth.
Klaus Jaffe, lead author of the paper and coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies of Simón Bolívar University in Venezuela, tells SciDev.Net that the correlation between scientific productivity and economic growth "has always been suspected, but there has been very little evidence that supports this idea.
"We had been observing that poor or middle-income countries were growing at a different pace than the developed ones and we wanted to know why."
The study, published in PLOS One last month (12 June), set out to investigate if some areas of science promote development more than others, and if applied sciences are better at advancing economic development than basic sciences.
The researchers examined the correlation between World Bank data on the growth of GDP (gross domestic product) per capita and the proportion of scientific publications in different scientific fields .
They found scientific productivity in basic science, including physics, chemistry and material sciences, correlated strongly with countries' economic growth over the following five years.
And preferential investment in technology, without investment in basic sciences, achieved little economic development, the say. "Thus, technology without science is unlikely to be sustainable."
“The most important thing is to invest in basic sciences. Those who try to skip this step fail.”
They also discovered that scientific productivity was a much better predictor of economic wealth and the Human Development Index — a composite of life expectancy, education and income indices used to rank countries' development — than other commonly used indices, such as indices of competitiveness or globalisation.
"The results of our paper demonstrate that the most important thing [for sustainable development] is to invest in basic sciences. Those who try to skip this step fail," says Jaffe.
Looking ahead, the ranking of scientific productivity in 2010 showed that countries with the greatest focus on physics were "among the fastest growing economies in 2012. Regrettably, no country from Africa or Latin America is on this list."
Jaffe says that "the situation is different in every nation. Most countries of Africa, for example, are trying to build the infrastructure they need to be able to do proper research. In addition, this competes with trying to find solutions to everyday problems to guarantee people's subsistence."
Douglas Gollin, professor of development economics at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, says research is needed to analyse what type of investment brings the greatest benefits.
"You would want to compare the returns from basic science research with the returns from more applied research on agriculture or health," he says.
"You should also compare the returns with other investments in public goods: in infrastructure, primary healthcare, primary and secondary education and so on. Of all the things that the government can invest in, is this one that generates the greatest improvement in public welfare?"
Link to full study