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The new world of research

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Research is changing the world. The research world is changing. This is, in a nutshell, the framework outlined by experts of the National Science Board in Science and Engineering Indicators which the U.S. National Science Foundation publishes, generally, every two years.

This thick report analyzes in depth the system of scientific research and technological development (R & D) in the United States of America. But it does it, too, from an international standpoint. It proposes a dynamic and quite detailed picture of the evolution of scientific research in the world from the mid-90s until the present day.

The information contained in this report is not completely new if compared to previous analysis. Also because the latest analyzed data refer to and include the year 2007, and therefore they stop at the threshold of the economic crisis which impacted, not always negatively, on research in various countries.

The most significant resulting picture is that the world of R & D increased its rapid change in the twelve years between 1996 and 2007 which were examined by NSF experts. Firstly, because science and technological innovation have more resources at their disposal. Financial and human resources.

In just twelve years, global investment in R & D doubled from 550 billion to 1,100 billion dollars. And it now amounts to 2% of gross domestic product. Since the EU invests less than 1.8% on average in R & D the resulting picture is that in recent years, our continent has registered an intensity of investment below the world average. This is the first time this has happened in the last half millennium.

The biggest increase in financial resources occurred in Asia, where investment nearly tripled, rising from $ 130 billion in 1996 to 330 in 2007. Particularly significant is the research intensity achieved in South Korea, which, with 3.6% of that investment relative to GDP, is at the top in the world. Even more significant is Chinese expenditure, which for almost twenty years has been growing at a rate of between 20 and 25% per year (the largest in the world). China now invests in absolute terms almost as much as Japan and in relative terms compared to GDP almost as much as Europe. But in a few years these targets will be substantially exceeded. China is poised to become the second power at every level of the scientific world, behind the U.S.A.

But the research world has changed also, and perhaps especially, with regard to human resources. In these twelve years the number of researchers around the world went from 4 to 5.7 million, an increase of 43% on a global scale. Researchers have grown both in the U.S. and Europe by almost 40%, increasing in both regions from 1.0 to 1.4 million. In total, Europe and the U.S. rely on 2.8 million researchers. In Japan, human resources are stable (around 0.8 million researchers), while in Russia they decreased from approximately 625 thousand to less than 490 units. The strong doubling of human resources in a small country like South Korea is significant, where in twelve years the number of researchers grew from 120,000 to 250,000. However, the biggest increase occurred in China, where during the same dozen years, the number of researchers almost tripled, rising from 0.5 to 1.4 million. This performance is unprecedented in the history of science. China now has the same number of researchers as the U.S. and the European Union.

But perhaps even more significant is the data on the increase in university graduates in the world. The data is a bit old. But the trend is clear. In 1980, graduates in the whole world were 73 million. In 2000 they had risen to 194 million. Most new graduates, once again, are in Asia: in 1980 14% of people with a university degree lived in this continent, in 2000 they were already 25%. In the last decade, Asia has further accelerated. This is confirmed by data on the number of people who graduate each year in science. While in the United States and Europe this number is substantially stable (200 thousand in the United States, 100 thousand in Germany or Britain) in China it has exploded: in the great Asian country science graduates increased from 239,000 in 1998 to 807,000 in 2006 . Young people obtaining science degrees in China are by now outnumbering those in the United States and Europe.

The trend in the number of doctoral students who graduate each year is similar. Between 1993 and 2006 in China they increased tenfold, from just over 2,000 to over 21,000 (a number comparable to that of the U.S. and more than twice that of Germany).  But there is not just China. In South Korea during the same period the number of PhD graduates per year tripled (from just over 1,000 to 3,500). In Japan and India it increased by 70% (from around 4,000 to over 7,000 in each country). In Europe and the U.S. PhD graduates tend to increase as well, but at a much lower rate.

All this is having an impact. On scientific output in the strict sense: the number of articles produced by American and European scientists which overall amounted to 69% of the world total in 1995 fell to 58% in 2008, while the share of articles by Asian scientists increased from 14 to 23%.

In technology, the consequences are even more evident. In 1995 the United States and Europe had a slice in the cake of world trade in high-tech goods of more than 40%. In 2008, the share fell below 30% overall. China has become the largest exporter in the world of hi-tech products. And Asia exports twice as much high technology products than the U.S. and Europe combined.

The research world has changed. Research however, changed the world.

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