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Funding scientific research: money can't buy love

By Allen Greer - posted Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Australia has recently become concerned about its world standing in terms of scientific research. There are many ways to assess a country's position, but the issue comes down to three basic questions. How much science does Australia produce for the amount of money it spends; what is the quality of its science and what makes for high quality anyway? This is a brief analysis of these three questions for both policy makers and the general public.

When Australia compares itself with other countries, it is often selective, emphasising the 34 OECD countries or a subset of them (Pettigrew, 2012; McKeon et al., 2013; West, 2013; Chubb, 2014).

The omission of countries for which there are data, however, creates a distortion.


For example, the Office of the Chief Scientist recently selected 11 of the 34 OECD countries against which to compare Australia's placement in the percentage of papers in the top one percent of papers cited. The Office concluded, without giving details, that "our best are very good" and we "do well" on this metric. However, 39 countries are actually available for the comparison, including 27 from the OECD, and overall Australia comes 13th in this expanded comparison (pers. obs. on data in van Noorden, 2012). Is this "very good" and "doing well?" In the analysis here, no conscious omission of countries is made.

Amount of Science Produced

It seems intuitively obvious that the amount of money a country spends on scientific research would be an important determinant of the amount of science it produces. But if this is the case is the relationship linear or curvilinear and how tight is it? Strangely, this relationship is rarely examined.

The most complete recent data to assess this relationship comes from 2011 when Nature magazine totalled the number of scientific papers published per country for that year (van Noorden, 2011). This is the dependent variable and can be taken as a proxy for the amount of science, or knowledge, produced. The total amount of each country's GDP spent on R&D in the preceding two years, 2009 + 2010, is a reasonable independent variable. This latter variable can be calculated from data for each country's GDP and the percentage of GDP spent on R&D (World Bank data). Data are available for 38 countries including 29 from the OECD. There are more recent data (van Noorden, 2012), but these include one less OECD country. The results, however, are similar.

The plot is shown in Fig. 1. The best-fit line for the data is a quadratic polynomial (but better than a linear only in the third decimal place) and shows that the amount spent on research accounts for 87 percent of the variance in the number of papers produced. When the three strongest outliers (China, Japan and the USA) are removed, the best-fit trendline, a polynomial, explains 82 percent of the variance.


Fig. 1. Number of papers published in 2011 (thousands) compared to the amount spent on R&D in the two preceding years (2009 + 2010) combined for 38 countries, including 29 of the 34 OECD countries (Chile, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg, and Slovenia excluded for lack of data on papers published). Australia is shown in red.

This plot suggests that if a country wishes to produce more science in general, the most effective method would be to allocate more money to R&D. This is an eminently amenable policy initiative. Realistically, however, the maximum expenditure on R&D as a proportion of GDP in the period 2009-2013 by any country was 4.2 percent (Israel in 2009; World Bank data). This number may represent the upper limit for any country under current conditions. Australian allocated 2.21, 2.20, 2.20 and 2.20 percent of its GDP to R&D in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively, and in 2012 the average for 35 countries was 2.06 (pers. obs.).

As to countries' positions in this plot, Australia is just above the trendline. Seven countries, however, are even further above it: India, Spain, Italy, Canada, Great Britain, China and the USA. Policy makers may wish to investigate why these countries, especially Great Britain and China get more science for their dollar than does Australia.

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About the Author

Allen Greer is a biologist who writes about science and nature.

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All articles by Allen Greer

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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