How does U.S. investment in science compare to that of other countries?

I know you’ve been wondering.

Federal investment in science supports the research of professors and graduate students at American universities, and funds our national laboratories. About half of U.S. basic research is conducted at universities and is funded by the federal government. However, the largest share of U.S. total “research and development” (R&D) is development, and this is mainly performed by the business sector. The business sector also performs the majority of applied research. The R&D performed domestically by U.S. businesses occurs mainly in five business sectors: chemicals manufacturing (particularly the pharmaceuticals industry); computer and electronic products manufacturing; transportation equipment manufacturing (particularly the automobiles and aerospace industries); information (particularly the software publishing industry); and professional, scientific, and technical services (particularly the computer systems design and scientific R&D services industries).

The government-university-industry partnership dates to at least the Morrill Act of 1862, and is ever-changing. As an example of this change, we remember that, in 1925, 4000 scientists and engineers were assigned to a newly created Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. to explore “fundamental areas of science likely to shape the future of the industry”. At a recent National Academies of Science convocation, Jeannette Wing (Director of the Data Science Institute at Columbia University and Former Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Research) referred to this partnership as “out of whack”. Think of the 3-cycle:

We could hope that government provides funds for universities to build talent and ideas and industries, in turn, take these ideas (and hire our students) and build upon them for the public good, at which point the economy grows and brings money back to the government.

For a number of reasons, the public feels disconnected, even alienated, from this cycle. This is hurting our country. We – the scientific community – need to take responsibility for this alienation, at least in part. More on this in future blog posts. But, now, back to the topic of national investments in science.

American investment in science has been relatively high, but countries that have not spent so much in the past are upping their game, to help secure their future economic stability and growth. According to a 2016 Nature article, the U.S. ranks 11th in terms of its investment in research and development as a percentage of its gross domestic product. They report that the top 30 countries spend roughly 1.7% to 4.3% of GDP in this way.

In case you are interested, the top 12 countries, in decreasing order of investment, are: South Korea, Israel, Japan, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Jamaica, U.S., and Fiji. Any surprises therein? When looking at the list, it struck me that Nepal and Democratic Republic of the Congo come in at #s 24 and 26, above both Norway (#28) and the United Kingdom (#29); could it be particularly small denominators? In any case (that was a slight digression), Israel and South Korea are the only two countries to invest over 4% and, for the past 3 or 4 years, they have gone back and forth in the #1 and #2 positions in this ranking.

This ranking, though, hides interesting information about such comparisons. For example, 75% of the South Korean investments are from industry. In the U.S., the majority had – for a long time – come from the federal government. In 2013 the federal government funds accounted for less than half of our funding for basic research for the first time since World War II. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal contribution to this commitment was greater than 70%.

Some questions are:

  • What are the sources for scientific research and development funding? Possible answers: Government; Industry; Philanthropy
  • Where are research and development done? Possible answers: Business enterprise; Government; Higher education; Private non-profit
  • What is meant by scientific research and development? Possible answers: Applied research; Basic research; Development/Experimental developmental

And, importantly, why should countries invest in research and development at all? One answer: these investments have proved to be good for our economy. Scientifically driven innovations have fueled as much as half of all U.S. economic growth since World War II.

President Trump would like to reinvigorate the U.S. economy. In order to do so, we need improved access to high-quality STEM education and increased and sustained investments in science and innovation. We must be ever-watchful of policies introduced that would hinder access (e.g., the current tax bill moving through Congress) or undermine science and innovation in some other way (e.g., the President’s budget request for the National Science Foundation). I am watching, and use this blog and also the AMS Policy and Advocacy News page to keep you informed.




About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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1 Response to How does U.S. investment in science compare to that of other countries?

  1. Amy Cohen says:

    There is another way in which the research universities of the US support the research and development efforts of our country. It is indirect, but it is crucial. The majority of PhDs in mathematics join the full-time instructional staffs of colleges and universities in this country. They provide math instruction not only to math majors but the vast majority of undergraduates: many of these undergraduates enter the STEM workforce. Others work in careers that require math courses but are not considered to be in STEM – medicine, nursing, accounting, and banking to name a few. Others become teachers in K-12 or two-year colleges. Without a steady flow of doctoral mathematicians in our systems of higher education, we will not have the educated citizenry needed to understand the crucial contributions to our economy by mathematics and mathematically educated people. The AMS supports graduate education in mathematics and thus supports education of the faculty we need for all sectors of education.

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