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China: global leadership in scientific research

China leads Asia in gaining global leadership in scientific research, UN says

With science and technology now the driving forces behind socioeconomic progress, China is leading a small number of emerging Asian economies whose remarkable progress in research and development is challenging the leadership of North America, Europe and Japan, a United Nations scientific report says.

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's new “UNESCO Science Report 2005,” written by an international team of independent experts, China had 810,000 researchers in 2002, compared to Japan's 646,500.

With China in the lead, Asia's gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) grew to 31.5 per cent of the world's expenditure of $830 billion in 2002 from 27.9 per cent of the total in 1997, while the figure for North America slipped to 37 per cent in 2002 from 38.2 per cent in 1997 and declined in Europe to 27.3 per cent from 28.8 per cent in the same years, the report says.

“Half a hectare of land and one year of labour were required to feed one person in 1900, whereas that same half-hectare now feeds 10 persons on the basis of just one and a half days of labour,” it notes. “The difference lies in the scientific knowledge that went into developing better fertilizers, machinery, seed and crop varieties, crop rotation schemes and so on.”

Capitalizing on the added value of science-based knowledge in virtually all areas of human activity means working to create “knowledge societies,” the report says.

The phenomenon of “brain drain” still affects many countries, however, it says. Even India, with its remarkable achievements in software development and space, biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, still loses many of its highly trained university graduates, mainly to the United States. Greater development at home constitutes the single most effective magnet for attracting researchers back to their countries of birth.

In 2001 in the United States, the private sector provided 66 per cent of R&D funding and in Japan, 69 per cent. The relative weakness of European private sector involvement, providing 56 per cent of R&D funding in the same period, is one of the reasons why European R&D now lags behind that of the United States, according to the report. In addition, the duplication of work in Europe's many national research institutions is mentioned as a handicap compared to the situation in the United States.

On the other hand, Sweden ranks first in research innovation, ahead of Japan and the United States, and Finland is fourth in this line-up, followed by Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Denmark. Germany, the Netherlands and France have been losing momentum, while Romania, Portugal and Turkey are moving forward and narrowing the gap.

Turning to African, Arab and Latin American and Caribbean countries, the report notes the importance of developing a national vision and stressing capacity building, rather than relying on international donors, aid programmes and multinational corporations.

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