How much do countries invest in R&D? New #UNESCO data tool reveals emerging players

As the UN General Assembly prepares to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UNESCO Institute for Statistics has released a new data tool showing the leaders and emerging players in research and development (R&D).

“Innovation is key to achieving each of the Sustainable Development Goals. So it is essential to track R&D investment in the knowledge, technology and thinking that drives innovation in countries,” said Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

SDG 9 calls on governments to promote sustainable industrialization and innovation by ramping up spending on R&D and increasing the number of researchers. Both indicators are featured in the new data tool entitled: ‘How much does your country invest in R&D?’

The top five R&D performers in absolute terms (R&D expenditure) are all large economies: United States followed by China, Japan, Germany and Republic of Korea. But the ranking changes dramatically according to the data that will be used to monitor SDG 9 (R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP): Republic of Korea is the world leader followed by Israel, Japan, Finland and Sweden.

Regions have been setting their own spending targets for some time: the best-known being the European Union (EU) target to raise overall R&D investment to 3% of GDP by 2020.

According to UIS data, only six countries worldwide have managed to surpass the 3% target, and three are smaller EU economies: Denmark, Finland and Sweden. These, in turn, lag behind Japan with 3.6% and Israel with an impressive 4.1%. And all of them trail behind South Korea – the world leader – with 4.3%. Austria, Germany and Switzerland hover around 3% as does the biggest spender of all: the United States.

Few countries in other regions compete with these proportions. In Central and Eastern Europe, Slovenia leads with 2.4% compared to the Russian Federation at 1.2%. In Central Asia, the figure hovers around 0.2%, as in the case for Kazakhstan. Morocco tops the league in the Arab States with just 0.7%. Brazil is the leader in Latin America, with 1.2%, while India leads in South and West Asia with 0.8%. In Africa, the African Union is aiming for 1%, but only Kenya, Mali and South Africa approach the target.

China is achieving an astonishing average annual growth rate of 18.3% in R&D spending, compared to just 1.4% across the rest of the world’s upper-middle-income countries, according to UIS data. China’s R&D spending only amounts to 2% of its GDP, but this means that the country is pouring about PPP$369 billion into this sector each year. As the share of global R&D expenditure by high-income countries fell from 88% in 1996 to 69.3% by 2013, China alone filled that gap, increasing its share from 2.5% to 19.6%. This means that China is increasingly approaching the United States, which accounts for almost 30% of global R&D expenditure.

Globally, there were almost 1,083 researchers for every one million people in 2013. However, the share of researchers in middle-income countries, excluding China, fell from 17% to 15% between 1996 and 2013– a worrying downward trend with global implications for sustainable development.

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