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New figures on research spending show that the gap between rich and poor countries is closing — but not fast enough.

Is the glass half empty or half full? Seldom could this cliché be more appropriate than when considering recent trends in scientific activity and spending across the developing world, as highlighted by figures published this week by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) in Montreal, Canada (see Poor countries spending more on science).

The figures, which cover 2002–2007, offer plenty of good news. Overall spending on research and development (R&D) in the developing world is growing three times more rapidly than in the developed world. And the number of researchers has more than doubled, compared with a nine per cent growth in the rest of the world.

It seems safe to say that the 'science gap' between rich and poor is closing — a welcome reflection that developing countries are increasingly recognising the critical role science and technology plays in socioeconomic development.

Leaders in spending

Admittedly, it is the more advanced countries such as Brazil, China and India that dominate the trend in spending. China's growth is particularly spectacular, with researcher numbers up by 76 per cent and total R&D spending more than doubling.

Such growth supports European predictions that China and India will become world leaders in research by 2025. A European Union task force last month suggested that within the next two decades, China and India will account for more than 20 per cent of global research investment, more than doubling their current share, which the UIS calculated at nine per cent for 2007.

The UIS figures also point to progress elsewhere. Within Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the number of researchers per million inhabitants, a key indicator of a country's scientific capability, grew by 18 per cent.

The bad news

But the news is not all good — even if the science gap is narrowing, it remains vast. The world's poorest countries, defined by the UIS as less developed countries, have 12 per cent of the world's population and many of its most needy communities. But they have just half a per cent of the world's researchers. In contrast, three quarters of the world's R&D spending still takes place in the developed world, which only has one-fifth of the population.

According to the UIS, developing countries spend an average of just one per cent of their gross domestic products (GDP) on R&D — half the developed world average.

In Africa, the figure was 0.4 per cent, a far cry from the one per cent promised by African Union members when they met in Addis Ababa in February 2007. If Africa is to effectively harness science and technology to meet its social needs, it will need more than promises — real money and effective spending policies are critical.

The caveats

Like all statistics, the UIS figures must be taken with caution. As official numbers, they are only as reliable as government data-gathering and reporting services.

And, as the analysts themselves acknowledge, the data are full of gaps where countries failed to provide data or submitted data that did not cover all economic sectors. As a result, says the UIS, the data for developing countries "can be considered a lower bound of their real R&D effort".

Perhaps even more significantly, a country's R&D spending figures alone — or its number of active researchers — do not give a full picture of its scientific strength. Establishing how effectively researchers work, and the extent to which their findings are put to practical use, is equally important and can only be measured with a more complex set of metrics, such as number of peer-reviewed publications or patent statistics.

Despite their limitations, the UIS data offer individual countries and regions a mine of information to underpin their own efforts to make science and technology investments a higher political priority.

For example, they reveal that the Arab states' contribution to global research is falling. In a world that is increasingly set on diversifying away from oil, these nations should be looking to invest more in science and technology — not less.

From a global point of view, the UIS statistics reinforce the message that even if the science gap is closing, it remains far wider than it should be.

Whether the argument is made in terms of social justice, or to reflect the continuing mismatch between scientific efforts and social needs, the glass is still half empty.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net