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Coronavirus has ‘energised’ science spending, says Unesco 

Global growth in research and development evident before the pandemic has been turbocharged by the coronavirus crisis, according to a comprehensive Unesco report into the state of science worldwide.

The UN Education, Scientific and Cultural organisation report published on Friday found global R&D spending rose 19 per cent between 2014 and 2018, adjusted for inflation, driven mainly by China and the US and outpacing growth in the wider economy. It is the most recent period for which comprehensive data are available.

Figures are not yet available for the period covering the pandemic but Unesco was clear it would have boosted R&D investment further as governments and the private sector poured funding into science and health research.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has exacted a heavy human and economic toll but it has also energised knowledge production systems,” Unesco concluded in its quinquennial assessment.

Susan Schneegans, project director, continued: “We have seen more investment channelled into the biomedical industry . . . [but] what we do not know yet is how much is additional money for the research budget rather than coming from somewhere else.”

Another boost for R&D activity comes from the growing realisation of how vulnerable some supply chains are to disruption from factors such as a pandemic or political upheaval. This has prompted countries to invest more in local production of science-based items from chips to drugs and medical equipment.

The longer-term trends show a striking divergence between Japan and China in R&D expenditure. In 2008 the two Asian countries spent almost the same amount (about $136bn). Ten years later, Japanese R&D had risen only slightly to $144bn while Chinese expenditure had leapt to $439bn (in constant 2005 dollars).

Looking at the four years to 2018, the Unesco report found that China alone was responsible for 44 per cent of global growth in research expenditure, with the US contributing 19.4 per cent and the EU 11.0 per cent.

But the two smaller countries that stand out for their research intensity — R&D as a proportion of gross domestic product — are Israel and South Korea. Israel raised this from 4.17 per cent in 2014 to a world-leading 4.95 per cent in 2018, while South Korea increased from 4.29 per cent to 4.53 per cent.

Line chart of top 15 countries for gross domestic expenditure on R&D (Purchasing power parity, constant 2005 prices, rebased so that 100 = 2008). It shows that R&D growth in China and South Korea is outpacing the rest of the world

Nations moving in the other direction included Canada, down from 1.72 per cent to 1.57 per cent research intensity; Mexico, moving from 0.44 per cent to 0.31 per cent; Australia, falling from 1.92 per cent to 1.87 per cent; and India, which slipped from 0.70 per cent to 0.65 per cent.

The report noted that most countries would record an “artificial inflation” of their research intensity when the 2020 figures appear, even if they do no more than maintain expenditure, because of the sharp declines in GDP during the pandemic.

Looking ahead, Unesco called on countries to invest a greater percentage of their wealth in R&D to achieve the parallel goals of transitioning to “digital” and “green” economies.

“Eight out of 10 countries still devote less than 1 per cent of GDP to research, perpetuating their dependence on foreign technologies,” the report said.

The number of scientists worldwide also increased almost 14 per cent between 2014 and 2018 to the full-time equivalent of 8.8m people, according to the report, although it noted that only a third were women.

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