Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Emerging countries like China and India are devoting a larger portion overall of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to research and development (R&D) than Europe and the United States. China’s investment in the sector ranks second only to the United States, according to figures of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.
Sylvia Schwaag Serger, science counsellor at Sweden's embassy in Beijing, said it was clear that “knowledge resources are increasing more rapidly in Asia, particularly in China, than in Europe or the US.” Beijing has increased its investments by 20% each year since 1999 and is expected to up its spending from the current 1.3% of GDP to 2.5% by 2020, outstripping the USA.
Apart from Japan, India, South Korea and Singapore also invest plenty in R&D, bringing Asia to the forefront of a sector which so far has been dominated by western states. South Korea invests 3% of its GDP in R&D. The Indian Premier, Manmohan Singh, announced in October that spending would increase from 0.8% of the GDP to 2% by 2012.
Meanwhile, western universities are seeing a drop in the number of students studying science subjects. In Great Britain alone, at least 26 chemistry departments and nine physics departments have shut down over the past decade. Charles Leadbeater, an expert in the sector, told the South China Morning Post that many Asian scientists who had moved abroad were returning home. He concluded that the "US and European pre-eminence in science-based innovation cannot be taken for granted” and that “the centre of gravity for innovation is starting to shift from west to east.”
Centres of world-class research are emerging in cities like Shanghai, Bangalore in India, and Hsinchu in Taiwan. In Beijing, engineers at Ericsson's research centre are developing innovative systems for mobile phone systems at a third of the cost of those in Europe. In Delhi, the Indian drug firm Ranbaxy has set up an R&D centre with 2,000 scientists. In Daejeon, South Korea, researchers have become leaders of stomach cancer research after just three years.
In a recent survey of more than 200 multinational companies conducted by the US National Academy of Sciences, more than 38% said they planned to move their research activities eastwards or to increase initiatives already under way there. Experts say that ever more firms are taking not only industrial production but also research to the East, and this is not just because of the cheaper work force or tax exemptions.
"It is important that we have more brains working on more problems in more places,” said Leadbeater.
Some beg to differ. Many western analysts believe that competition rather than collaboration will grow between countries. What’s more, episodes like China's missile test reinforce fears that Beijing’s technological progress may pose a threat.
There is talk of “more conflict and more collaboration”, bearing in mind the many issues of divergence (like intellectual property rights and disputes on commercial rules) on the one hand but also the usefulness of exchanging ideas and experiences. It is a reality that exchange of information has also increased: Chinese researchers work with their counterparts in the United States and Europe and also in Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Direct collaboration between India and China is also on the rise.
Both India and China want to see their research become more independent from foreign firms that bring money but expect research to be tailored to fit their demands rather than the specific needs of Asia like tropical medicine, agricultural technologies and solutions for the environment.