Effect Measure

Well may the world go, when I’m far away

Every two years the US National Science Board does an analysis of how the country is doing on research and development (R&D). While an important measure of the ability to innovate and compete in a highly competitive and globalized world, I have a hard time getting excited about how this is being portrayed as a horse race, who is ahead, who is coming on strong, who is slipping behind. I’m a scientist and I don’t think of this as a national competition. I understand how the President’s science advisors might, since they are interested in science as a handmaiden to the economy. But if someone in China or Belgium discovers how to cure cancer, fine with me.

Not that there is strong evidence that US science is being ignored. Ask any one in science and we’ll tell you how much more could be done if more were invested, but lots of sectors of the economy have a claim to that. But R&D expenditure as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, a measure of a country’s economic activity) has remained steady at 5 – 6%. What worries US science policy makers, however, is that other countries, especially in Asia, are ramping up and some, like Japan, far exceed the US:

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There are other indicators that also have them concerned:

?The data begin to tell a worrisome story,? says Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal R&D in the President?s Office of Science and Technology Policy (press release). ?US dominance has eroded significantly.?

Other indicators are also worrying American wonks. China now has the same number of researchers as the US and America?s share of world research articles published also continues to decline.

The report also notes that moves by large companies to shift R&D cash to Asia are also ongoing. Overseas research spending by US multinationals in Asia (excluding Japan) has increased from 5% in 1995 to 14% in 2006. (Daniel Cressey, The Great Beyond, Nature’s science blog)

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Naturally, as an American researcher I’m interested in getting more support for my work. But as a scientist, well, more power to them, the “them” being scientists wherever they are. The big issue for me is not where the science is done but getting access to it, wherever it is done. That’s why open access publishing initiatives and Net Neutrality are much more important to me than the percent of GDP my country spends on R&D. My science is not American science. It’s just science.

Borders are arbitrary. They can change. They can even disappear. Before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 there were few states in the modern sense. During the scientific revolution of the 17th century, most countries didn’t even exist (including the US). In 100 years, less than my mother’s life span (she died at 103), many existing now may not be here. That’s even possible of the US and major European countries. The latter are already part of something larger, the EU.

But there will still be science and scientists who do it. I could care less what their language may or may not be and what nationality they claim, if any. I’m interested in something else. How the world works.

Comments

  1. #1 dean
    January 20, 2010

    “Well may the world go when I’m far away”

    Pete Seeger – still going strong, showing up in the most surprising places.

  2. #2 revere
    January 20, 2010

    dean: Indeed. That’s the source of the title. Considered putting a clip up, altho not sure if there is one of Pete doing it (I didn’t check).

  3. #3 Gaythia
    January 20, 2010

    Ivory towers are expensive to maintain! The economy matters, or ought to matter, even to “pure” scientists.

    Public attitudes towards science are also vital. Societal attitudes are not static and are tied to people’s own sense of future and personal well being. Science thrives in an environment that has not only the prosperity to support science but also the will.

    Scientific inquiry and an open society go hand and hand. We can have a country that supports science, or not.

    I believe that all scientists need to work hard to avoid the changes that might come with the “or not” possibilities.

  4. #4 spit
    January 20, 2010

    Well, I’m not concerned with what nation is putting out what research — that other places in the world are putting out good science is a boon to science, and that’s what matters to me. More and better research in the world isn’t something to be threatened by.

    Thing is, though, that tucked into these numbers is the reality that most people’s access to science education is defined through their nationality. And that’s the worrisome part, to me — not that the US might “fall behind” in some bizarre framework of American Exceptionalism, but that underlying these measures is less funding and crappy policy for encouraging scientific understanding through our country’s educational systems. Even folks who will never research anything should have a grasp of scientific principles, but that only really happens if you prioritize science in your national institutions.

    I am blessed with a diverse crew of friends — people who fix things, people who write things, people who work hard across all sorts of different fields and topics and needs. What has passed for “basic science and math education” for most of them, though, is honestly really frightening. And that is a problem that does reflect national priorities.

  5. #5 Lea
    January 20, 2010

    Don’t want to talk about Senator Scott Brown revere?
    You’re the first person I thought of while watching the news coverage last night.

  6. #6 revere
    January 20, 2010

    Lea: Don’t have much to say about it that is different than what others are saying. I consider it a repudiation of the halfway and cowardly approach of the Dems on HCR. Everyone hated what they produced. It wasn’t real reform and it was full of terrible crap (like abortion control). It kept insurance companies in the drivers seat. While it did some good things, there’s no reason we can’t strip them out and pass them and then get back to real reform. The Republicans claim they are for no pre-existing condx and no caps and providing help to the uninsured so let’s get that done. Of course they don’t want that because they want to deny the Dems credit, but it will be harder for them to say “no.”

  7. #7 Lea
    January 20, 2010

    Repubs and Dems alike need to grow up and stop the bickering, that is the bottom line. I for one am ashamed of what our political system has become, just as our Founding Father’s would be.
    The medical marijuana movement has taught me a great deal about “Politics” lately. That’s one reason I haven’t been here arguing with you revere, I’ve been active in that direction. It takes up a great amount of time.

  8. #8 Janne
    January 20, 2010

    Agree fully. Where science is happening is not important; that it happens is.

    spit’s point about science education is important of course. But access to that (and ignoring many other important factors, such as how research spending relates to the number and quality of science teachers) is really determined by the amount spent on research per capita, not absolute numbers, or percentage of the gdp. A populous nation can spend a lot in absolute numbers, and a poor nation a large percentage of their gdp, but it will still only be a small amount per person.

  9. #9 MoM
    January 21, 2010

    Interesting, I started with Pete Seeger and ended up with John Lennon… Imagine there’s no countries…

    Don’t get me started on the gutless wonders in the Senate. I think they oughta make the opposition actually filibuster. I’d like to see McConnell and DeMint stand up and talk for 36 hours straight and see if they have anything to say. My personal belief is that it would be the end of them.

  10. #10 Paula
    January 22, 2010

    With the Supreme Court ruling for unlimited corporate financing of election campaign, seems time for “It’s all over now, Baby Blue.” Time for Marge Piercy’s little golom (in He, She, and It).