Data visualisation: How the UK stacks up in R&D
The annual BIS science, engineering and technology statistics make some interesting reading for a rainy Sunday. One of the more telling bits is the comparison of what the G7 countries spend on research and development (R&D).
Spoiler alert: the UK doesn’t come out well in the rankings, but the various breakdowns help to discern where, in particular, it’s falling behind.
The overall measure is gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD). It’s the sum of R&D spent in business, university, government and not-for-profit sectors. According to a recent survey of OECD members (pdf), GERD is the most important indicator to member nations.
When graphed, what’s interesting is that though science’s frozen budget in the UK garnered lots of attention in the last couple years, R&D in the UK has actually been declining for decades. In fact the UK is the only one of the G7 countries to be spending less of its GDP on research and development now than in 1986.
To break those numbers down, we can look at the various contributing sectors of R&D. Higher-education expenditure on R&D looks like this:
By that measure, then, the UK has been steadily increasing, keeping pace with most of the other G7 countries. Which perhaps isn’t surprising since elsewhere in the BIS data we learn that almost 28 per cent of the UK’s R&D (by expenditure) is performed by universities.
Most of these universities would be receiving government funding for research – and the government funds a disproportionate amount, relative to industry, of Britain’s R&D. Here are R&D by source of funding, in 2009:
In business, then, we might expect the UK to compare less favourably, and indeed that’s what the data show. In business enterprise expenditure on R&D, the UK again shows one of the most marked declines in the G7:
That indicator has interesting implications for the Government’s current push to bring more industry funding to university research, most recently in the Catalyst Fund as part of the Life Sciences Strategy. If business spending on R&D is declining relative to GDP, will there be the appetite among industry to step up and fill the hole left by government?
Which brings us, finally, to the most beleaguered indicator of them all: government expenditure on R&D. Here the UK comes out last among G7 nations:
Others have fallen far – notably France and the US. Germany and Japan have actually managed to increase governmental spending on R&D, even post-recession.
The UK’s R&D spend here has dropped by 0.16 percentage points since 1986, but has been holding steady in recent years. We can expect it to decline in the years ahead, though, since the frozen science budget will mean a cut in real terms to agencies such as the Department of Health and Defra, according to CaSE.
All in all, then, it’s a complex picture of Britain’s research landscape.
- Government funding of R&D is declining, but government still makes up nearly as big a piece of the pie as industry in R&D (as compared to the US and Japan, the other two in the top five countries for research output, which have relatively more industry funding).
- Higher education remains a strength for UK R&D.
- But, with government funding of higher education also declining, more input from industry is expected to fill the gap, and doesn’t necessarily seem to be forthcoming from prior performance.
Are initiatives like the Catalyst Fund the answer? Or perhaps more funding from abroad, which Britain already seems to excel at attracting?