There was an excellent essay in Science last month by William Press, the multitalented president of the AAAS, titled What’s So Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?), on…
…the mystery of why society is willing to support an endeavor as abstract and altruistic as basic scientific research and an enterprise as large and practical as the research and development (R&D) enterprise as a whole. Put differently, it is the mystery that a unified scientific enterprise can be simultaneously the seed corn for economic advance and the confectionary corn syrup of pure, curiosity-driven scientific discovery.
Press describes the remarkably sustained exponential growth of the U.S. economy over the past century, the attribution of a good fraction of that to investment in science and technology, and the recent history of research and development funding in the U.S.:
Notably, the overall level has been roughly constant at about 3% of GDP but the proportion that is federally funded has dropped considerably over the past decades, with disturbing implications for basic research and long-term progress. You can read about all this in the essay, and elsewhere.
Less familiar, however, is this fascinating graph, showing R&D spending of various countries, and the fraction of their populations that are scientists and engineers. (The size of the circles depicts the country’s total R&D spending.)
There’s a clear correlation. This makes senses — if one increases the fraction of one’s economy devoted to science, one correspondingly increases the number of scientists and engineers to make this happen. Science is very labor intensive! I doubt, though, that such a trend would be evident for other areas, like agriculture, where machinery rather than people drives productivity. The other interesting thing is that there are notable outliers to the trend: Israel, for example (small numbers of very well-funded scientists?), and New Zealand (the opposite?). It would be fascinating to compare the labs, careers, and outlooks of scientists in Norway and Sweden, with similar fractions of the populations in science and engineering, but a factor-of-2 difference in overall R&D funding.
But now: back to grant writing…