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…
3 thoughts on “Cheap Kiwi scientists”
Elephant, another interesting story told with graphs.
I would ask a couple of questions. Looking at the investment as a % of GDP (federal and other) in your first figure, not sure that it’s so obvious that federal investment in R&D has fallen “considerably” over the past decades. It looks, in fact, that such spending has ticked UP between 2000 and 2010. Since the left anchor of the time axis is 1960, with an immediate and significant up-tick between 1960 and 1970 (what happened in July, 1969 that might explain this?), we are unable to see what historical trends were.
It’s true that funding fell between about 1967 and 1980 (again, I suspect that the moon landing, as well as military investment masquerading as R&D – the Vietnam war – are intertwined, was more or less stable, with a small increase between 1980 and 1990 (the Reagan defence build-up?), fell again between 1990 and 2000, and was more or less steady throughout the 2000s, even nudging up slightly.
I agree that it’s true (based on the plots) that such federal spending was higher in the mid-1960s than it is now.
Excellent points, and you’re right that there hasn’t been a steady fall in federal R&D funding. I’m embarrassed to point out that I forgot that I myself previously posted a graph that illustrates this: https://eighteenthelephant.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/graphs-of-science-funding/ , which breaks down defense and non-defense federal research funding. It’s huge in the mid 1960’s, stable around 0.6% of GDP in most of the 70s, and then stable at 0.3-0.4% from the mid-80s until today!
There’s more to write about this: whether 0.4% or 0.6% is “better,” whether the roughly stable level of funding is being spread more thinly among a growing number of scientists, whether a dollar of science funding goes as far as it used to (e.g. due to higher costs for supporting personnel), but I’ll save that for some other time. By the way: I very highly recommend Paula Stephan’s “How Economics Shapes Science,” a fascinating book on the economics of research and its funding.
Dear Raghu (apologies for the familiarity!)
Thanks – the link explains a lot.
Did not intend to crib; I was more or less curious to see the ebb and flow of funding and how it related to military spend.
When I was a grad student (now more than two decades ago – in maths), a lot of our funding came from DoD contracts. Some of the studies that seemed innocuous (one I recall about using wavelets to track the motion of ant colonies) was funded by the Pentagon. I’m sure that they had their reasons for such research.
Anyway, cheers on another interesting post.