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UNESCO has just produced its report on science for 2010 and a brief chapter details the recent shake-up of the New Zealand science system with a number of graphs benchmarking us against our neighbours in the Asia Pacific region.

The report’s overwhelming theme is of an increased focus on science among emerging countries that is beginning to challenge the domination of the traditional “scientific triad” of the US, Japan and Europe, who have traditionally been the world leaders in research and development and scientific projects.

One of the big measures used in the report is gross domestic expenditure on R&D and on that count, China, India and Korea are raising Asia’s game:

Led mainly by China, India and the Republic of Korea, Asia’s share increased from 27 to 32% between 2002 and 2007. Over the same period, the three heavyweights, the European Union, USA and Japan, have registered a decrease. In 2002, almost 83% of research and development was carried out in developed countries; by 2007 this share had dropped to 76%. This trend is even clearer when industry’s contribution to GERD is considered. Between 2000 and 2007, the private sector share of R&D spending, as a proportion of GDP, saw a sharp increase in Japan, China, Singapore and especially the Republic of Korea, while it remained stable in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom and even saw a slight decrease in the Russian Federation and the USA.

In our part of the world – UNESCO includes New Zealand and Australia along with the Pacific islands in the same group as many nations of South East Asia, we are doing pretty well. New Zealand and Australia account for just five per cent of the population in the region, but nearly half of its total GDP. Traditionally the bulk of scientific expenditure comes from those two countries as well as the bulk of scientific output. But that is changing and at a swift pace, largely driven by Singapore and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Thailand. The table below gives some of our key measures against others in the region.

unesco table

Singapore’s science focus

Singapore’s investment in science has really paid off for the country according to UNESCO:

Singapore is one of the few countries in the region with a net inflow of scientific personnel, both from the region and from other scientifically advanced economies. There is growing evidence that Singapore is becoming central to global knowledge hubs in fields such as biomedical science and information technology (IT). A big challenge for Singapore will be to maintain the present inflow of human capital in order to underpin sustained knowledge-based development over the next decade, even as the rapid growth of the Indian and Chinese economies is stimulating demand for skilled personnel in these countries.

Singapore produces more patents than New Zealand and across the border in Malaysia, scientific developments are also gathering pace:

Malaysia registered less than half as many patents as New Zealand in 2001 but matched it by 2006 and moved ahead in 2007.

In that respect its good to see announcements like the one this week from New Zealand’s Health Research Council, that detailed a new scientific collaboration with Singapore. A $2 million joint fund has been set up by the HRC and Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research for cancer research. The money will fund joint research projects into breast cancer progression, ovarian cancer and liver tumours undertaken by researchers at the University of Otago and Singapore-based universities.

Science in from the cold

The UNESCO report picks up an increasing trend globally of governments looking to science to breathe new life into their economies – something that rings true here with Prime Minister John Key’s stated goal of putting science “at the heart of government”.

Science policy has shifted ground in terms of national development strategies. Science policy has been brought in from the cold to play a central role in innovation policies. This has quite significant long-term implications and carries with it policy management dilemmas.

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