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Scandinavian countries top the world in research, study finds

The world’s smaller developed nations, particularly in Scandinavia, have high levels of R&D support and this goes hand-in-hand with international collaboration and results in high-impact research results, according to a new study.

The impact of research from these countries is as good as or better than for larger countries such as the United States, France, Germany and Canada, the study found. The larger nations have lower levels of international collaboration than the smaller nations of Europe and Scandinavia.

At the request of Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb, Alan Pettigrew, an adjunct professor in the college of medicine, biology and environment at the Australian National University, compared OECD figures published last September for Australia and 12 other countries: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and the US.

In the 10th edition of its Scoreboard on Science, Technology and Innovation, published last September, the OECD included statistics on more than 180 indicators from 59 OECD and non-OECD countries. These covered such measures as the level and type of spending on R&D activity, the impact of publications and levels of collaboration.

The scoreboard provides a wealth of information intended to allow “policy-makers and analysts to compare their economies with others of a similar size or with similar structure and monitor their progress towards desired national…policy goals”, Pettigrew says.

His analysis covers eight of the more important indicators for the 13 countries, each of which has a developed economy, an internationally respected research culture and a relatively large research workforce.

R&D spending and workers

The report, Australia’s Position in the World of Science, Technology & Innovation, notes that Australia spends about 2.25% of its gross domestic product on research and development compared with Denmark at 3%, Sweden at about 3.6% and Finland at almost 4%.

Whereas Australia has just eight researchers per 1,000 workers, Sweden has 10, Denmark 12 and Finland 16.

Eleven of the countries have greater proportions of R&D workers in business enterprises than the UK and Australia, Pettigrew says. “The proportions in the smaller countries of Sweden, Denmark and Finland are more than three times that of Australia.

“The R&D effort in the UK and Australia is clearly concentrated in the higher education sector. Denmark and Finland, on the other hand, have strong R&D workforce numbers in both the higher education and business sectors.

“Other more detailed OECD indicators show that the number of researchers in the manufacturing and service sectors in Australia of 3.1 per 1,000 employed in industry in 2009 was less than a third the average figure for the four Scandinavian countries (10.0) and the US (10.5).

“These figures reveal a critical lack of investment in, and a significant disadvantage for, innovation in Australia’s industry sectors.”

The bulk of Australia’s world-class R&D takes place in universities. Through this effort, Australia produces 2.6% of the OECD nations’ total number of science and engineering graduates at doctorate level, the report states.

The low level of researcher employment in Australian businesses indicates, however, that this research training primarily results in employment in higher education, rather than in industry.

In terms of research outcomes, measured by publications and citations in academic journals, Australia has the fifth highest number of publications in top journals per 1,000 people – placing it ahead of Britain, Canada, the US, Germany and France, but behind Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland.

“It is of interest that the smaller Scandinavian countries perform best among this group,” Pettigrew says, noting that the level of funding from overseas for business research and development is highest in Austria, at 23%, the UK with 22% and Ireland on 21% – and lowest in Australia at just 1.1%.

For most countries, the increase in spending over the period 1999-2009 has been in the range of 13% to 45%, although spending on higher education R&D in Ireland and Denmark more than doubled over the decade.

The rates of higher education R&D expenditure in Canada and Finland are now 1.4 times greater than Australia’s; those in Sweden and Denmark are 1.7 times greater, and each of these four countries also has more researchers working in the business sector.

The level of business R&D funding from abroad was highest in Austria (23%), the UK (22%) and Ireland (21%). In these countries there is a strong presence of foreign multinationals in the economy and in the domestic production of technology, the report says.

Across Canada and the selected Scandinavian and European countries, the average was 10%, whereas Australia’s level of business R&D funding from abroad was only 1.1% – a level exceeded in 32 other countries in the full OECD report.

Research publication

Pettigrew says that counts of research publications and how often publications are cited by others are common measures of research outcomes. By sheer volume of publications, the US is the most prolific, followed by China.

“But a different picture emerges if we look only at publications in the top journals and on this measure, the UK is in second place behind the US.

“When the size of each country is also taken into account, the story is again different: on these measures; Australia compares favourably with the UK, Canada, US, Germany and France while the smaller Scandinavian countries perform best among this group.”

The report says that Australia must consider whether its research investment in universities and government agencies, such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is adequate when compared with other small nations, particularly in Scandinavia.
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