Poor countries spending more on science

The number of researchers in developing countries has soared. Copyright: USDA

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[NAIROBI] Spending on science in the developing world grew at three times the rate of that of richer countries between 2002 and 2007, according to figures released yesterday (6 October) by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

And the number of researchers in developing countries jumped from 1.8 million to 2.7 million over the same period.

The third UIS survey on statistics of science and technology has shown that, on several counts, the gap in investment rates in science between the developed and developing worlds is closing.

While spending on research and development (R&D) by developed countries grew by about one third (32 per cent) during the period, developing countries more than doubled their spend (103 per cent), from US$135 to US$274 billion.

The surge in researcher numbers means that the developing world employed 30 per cent of researchers in 2002 but 38 per cent by 2007.

The survey, which is conducted every two years, focuses on human resources devoted to, and expenditure on, R&D.

The results show that R&D investment has also increased in developing countries. Total spending on R&D by developing countries accounted for one per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007, up from 0.8 per cent in 2002. This compares with 2.3 per cent for the developed world.

However, the figures conceal big differences between the more advanced developing nations and the least developed countries. China, for example, increased its R&D spending to 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2007, and accounts for over half (53 per cent) of researchers in developing countries. Only six countries other than China are spending one per cent or more of GDP on research.

And, while developing nations as a whole more than doubled their R&D spend this figure fell to a less than three quarters increase (73 per cent) once China and India were removed from the calculation.

But even in the 50 least developed countries (defined according to the standard UN classification) there was an average 20 per cent increase in researchers. There was also a slight increase — from 40 to 43 — in the number of researchers per million inhabitants. However, these countries still only have 0.5 per cent of the world’s researchers.

In South Africa the number of researchers grew by nearly a third (31 per cent) over the five year period. This also represents an 18 per cent increase in the number of researchers per million inhabitants (from 51 to 60), a key figure used by economists as an indicator of a country’s commitment to science.

In the rest of Africa, there was an overall higher increase of 34 per cent in the number of researchers, from 32,000 to 43,000.

Peter Tindemans, former head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Global Science Forum, says: "It is unlikely that the United States will spend much more than its current figure of about 2.75 per cent of GDP [on R&D], but it is very likely that China will grow from its present 1.6 per cent or so to above two per cent".

Geoff Oldham, former chairman of the UN Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for Development, says: "R&D is just one of the necessary inputs to innovation. Have the developing countries also expanded their support for science and technology services, engineering design and all the other activities needed to innovate?"

"If they have not done so then they may be disappointed with the impact of their R&D spend on innovation. This has happened before, especially in Latin America in the 1970s."

And Sospeter Muhongo, executive director of the International Council for Science Regional Office for Africa, says: "Developed countries still account for 80 per cent of publications in learned journals with the developing world taking only 20 per cent".

No African country apart from South Africa is putting more than one per cent of its national wealth into R&D — although the political will is there, he adds.

The statistics were gathered in 2008 from 149 developing countries and territories. They were based on figures provided by national governments, and have not been independently verified. Full details, along with details of limitations on some of the figures, can be found on the UIS website.