Field of Science

Answer this simple question for me please

I am not the first person asking this question. And you are not the first one to whom I will ask this question. I’ve asked this question even to Nobel laureates (while I was at Lindau) including Sir Harold Kroto and Jean-Marie Lehn but they did not give me a satisfactory answer. I’ve even asked Dr. Evan Harris who said he will email me a reply (which he hasn’t yet).

So here’s the question:

Why is the research funding for science in most countries less than 1% of the GDP?

(US = 0.8%, UK = 0.5%, India = 0.8%)

I can try and make a case for how much scientific research contributes to the GDP but it won’t be as beautiful as Brian Cox’s plea for science funding (which is in fact a TED talk).

In my attempts to try and find an answer to this question, I have come to understand the following:

  1. An obvious point: Publicly-funded research is mainly towards development of basic science with an aim of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.
  2. Surprising fact: More application oriented (profit making) research is carried out in the industries (up to 80% in OECD countries but much lesser share in the developing countries).
  3. Controversial: Some make a case that privately-funded research is more efficient than publicly-funded research. I think that may be the case only in very corrupt countries.
If it is true that such a large chunk of research happens in the industry, it makes me wonder how many secrets are being harbored by the industry and how much good they could do for humanity. But may be that needs to be balanced with the need to keep earning money through licensing patents and selling products to keep innovating.

Leaving the industry aside for the time being, even government funded science amounts to such meager expenses to the state as compared to the impact it has on the economy that today Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, announced that there will be major cuts in science funding. Some guess that the cuts could be as high has 25%.

I fail to understand why. Can someone help me answer this simple question?

Why is the research funding for science in most countries less than 1% of the GDP?

Bonus question: Even if that is the case, why is the government trying to cut that spending?


  1. The key word is 'containment'.

    A worker should know enough about the world to get the job done, and that's it. Knowledge is empowering and dangerous to power.

    So tremendous resources are funneled into sports, and entertainment, and new colors of phones. And research is institutionalized and marginalized and contained.

  2. Because countries are still run and governed by religion, even (especially) Ameria. And religion abhors and fears science.

  3. I think the primary issue is that not enough people seem to care much if science is well funded. People care about important things like sports and jesus.

  4. Controversial: Some make a case that privately-funded research is more efficient than publicly-funded research. I think that may be the case only in very corrupt countries.

    That right there is a 600 lb gorilla in the room. What does efficient mean? Clearly in your usage here, it means products or some other money making outcome. In this usage, the statement that privately-funded research is more efficient than publicly-funded research is absolutely true.

    But is that the goal of research funding in science? To many it is, however to most scientists this represents one goal of science. To increase our knowledge of ourselves and the universe in which we live is the goal of science to me. From this goal comes information that can be commercialized, but it is not the only goal.

    A problem is that the public is not taught about this goal. Indeed, I will argue that the public views science as engineering and scientists as engineers. We are problem solvers in their minds, and we are, but not like engineers. Scientists have done much to reinforce this mindset and little to combat it. We are asked (forced) to justify our use of public money (which is a good thing in principle). However, we are asked to do this in specific ways, how will this directly benefit human health, agriculture, etc. In other words, we are asked to explain what problem we are engineering a solution to. This has become more and more specific over the last ten years and is getting to the point where only the medical engineers and power house researchers are being funded.

    Why do countries spend <1% of their GDP on research? Because it is virtually impossible to know ahead of time how research program X will lead to a cure for your-favorite-disease. However, I agree with the previous commenters points as being confounding problems.

  5. @ Lorax: Yours is the most satisfying comment I have had, thank you. Yet, I am not convinced. I agree that people might treat science as engineering but surely there must be some people in the political system who realise the value of science?

    What will happen if they double the funding for science? Have they ever thought of doing that?

    @ giraffalope & KaneHau & Citizen: Agree with all of you.

  6. Bit miserable eh, when Nobel prize-winners can’t answer a simple question ;-).
    Problem is, as you know, it’s only a simple question when we’re all agreed on the small print.

    Personally in these discussions I find it helpful to separate the idea of ‘The Wonder’ element of science research from other values. (The Wonder here as an abstract thought-experiment concept = output of science with zero $ benefit foreseeable…ever, but still interesting, thrilling, inspiring, life-enhancing etc). I value The Wonder highly; but others in a democracy will have their own priorities.

    Voters of course are never asked to sanction policy, let alone spend, at this resolution (maybe the Swiss). But it doesn’t hurt to make folk aware that there is something beyond applied science – that’s ONE of the jobs of science communication through engagement.

    It’s important also that certain science just gets done – anyhow; especially in pre-competitive fields where industry is relying on universities. This also raises issues around where profits from applications built on the back of UK research are realised. A related point is whether, say, UK scientists feel they always have to share their findings with the world – as some kind of ethic – rather than hold them back in those cases where the UK could enjoy a competitive advantage. This is separate from arguments around blue-sky research. I’d like to see a clearer definition and wider understanding of blue-sky, and funding clearing assigned to it.

    How to change 0.5% to 1%? Yikes! Like anything else in politics: a mix of bottom-up pressure from an educated, enthused, mobilised populace; combined with top-down pressure achieved through lobbying of politicians. The top-down won’t work without bottom-up (voter) support – a bit like climate change issues.

    Few other points:

    - Re comparison of developed vs developing world R&D, it’s important to consider the rate of increase of spend rather than/as well as absolute spend. Developed world spend built up over time.

    - Your point re industry scientists keeping stuff secret. It works both ways; there’s a lot of military / defence science that is only made available for peaceful application years after discovery (if ever).

    - Really have to look at spend field by field, and industry by industry. They are def. not uniform.

    So, science R&D spend is what it is because:

    (a) citizens are not demanding it, because they’re happy with the ‘wonder factor’ and don’t understand the role of science in the innovation chain. They’re sufficiently happy, given their other priorities, education, and general disposition, with the level of understanding and wonder of the universe they enjoy as a product of current spending levels. Scientists and science communicators of all shades and through all channels (incl. education) may influence.

    (b) politicians do not see/do not understand a compelling case for economic benefit from greater science R&D spend, and feel no pressure from voters for more ‘wonder factor’ science. Industry (e.g. UK) should make it clear / lobby where it wants applied public funded science to be.

    That’s a very incomplete answer. Hopefully adds something.


  7. Comment from Noksatva:

    People (organizations) tend to only pursue their own areas of interest. As we live in a capitalist society, most things (Power, Trains, Communications etc.) are handled by private corporations, providing greater motivation for for-profit corporations to create the actual applications (since they're making the money off of it). The government, according to our laws, shouldn't be involved in running businesses and consequently, only pursues application of technology in fields it's directly involved in (primarily military). To get the government to do more, people would have to request (demand) it of the government, and the populace at large has no real motivation for doing so, and often has little understanding of advanced scientific research or its benefits. Therefore corporations will do more research than the government and developing nations with weaker economies and fewer corporations will do less research.

    I think this also helps to explain our absurdly large defense budget. (Speaking from the U.S.)

    It's also very hard for a politician to justify spending money on something that doesn't demonstrate quick results to people who expect immediate gratification. A result 10 years from now may be good for society, but it doesn't help you win votes, and getting re-elected is primarily what politicians do.

  8. Two quick thoughts:

    Lots of science has extremely long time windows for payoff. Quantum mechanics was developed in the 1930s, but the electronic age didn't kick off until the 70s.

    Progress doesn't occur in the areas we'd most like to see it, or we'd already be mass producing fusion reactors right now. Spending money on a specific area of research is not a guarantee of an outcome.

    These two issues make research a hard sell. In most areas of government, you pay for something, you get what you paid for (after cost overruns, at least). Science doesn't work that way (something you're hinting at in your most recent comment).

  9. A partial answer, at least in America, is politics. It's well-known that science budgets were held static or cut for 8 years under the last administration (see this post, which unfortunately is now missing the graphs). McCain would have been a disaster (documented extensively on my blog, e.g., here. There's been a considerable improvement under the new administration, despite the financial crisis.

    To be fair to Republicans, the first Bush wasn't nearly so bad. But that was a long time ago. (The Clinton years were pretty decent as well.)

  10. -Clearly in your usage here, it means products or some other money making outcome. In this usage, the statement that privately-funded research is more efficient than publicly-funded research is absolutely true.

    In the short-term what you say is quite true. But in the long-term, we realise that almost every single practical industrial technology has ultimately come from academic research.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...