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:
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)
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.