Asia propelled towards science powerhouse status

With Asia accounting for almost half the world’s economic output and 42% of global research and development, or R&D, spending, the region is emerging as a science powerhouse with some of the world’s most dynamic national science and technology programmes contributing to global research and innovation.

Yet the wider picture is more complex – a number of Asian countries are being left behind in the “global march towards more technology intensive economies”, according to the UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 just released by the Paris-based UN agency responsible for education and science.

Though the region was relatively unscathed compared to Western countries by the global economic downturn of the past decade, R&D spending in key developed countries including Japan and Singapore was nonetheless affected. However dramatic growth in science spending in China and the size of the Indian R&D sector, have kept Asia on track towards achieving science powerhouse status.

Nonetheless, emerging science powers such as China and India face challenges that will need to be addressed before they can join the club of more established science powers in North America and Europe, or even match the prowess of Japan and South Korea, within the Asia region.

Because of its sheer size and momentum, China dominates the strong shift in science and technology production from Western countries towards Asia. Particularly in quantitative measures, China is in a “sharp uphill trajectory in science, technology and innovation,” the UNESCO report says.

In terms of overall R&D spending, adjusted for purchasing power parity or PPP, China’s stated R&D expenditure in 2013 of US$336.58 billion – almost double the 2009 figure of US$184.17 billion – was way more than Japan’s total expenditure in 2013 of approximately US$160.25 billion, though still well behind US expenditure of US$453.54 billion in 2013.

India was well behind China with just US$48 billion spent on R&D in 2013. Singapore’s expenditure was just over US$8 billion. At the other end of the scale, in 2013 Indonesia’s R&D expenditure was just above US$2 billion – behind Pakistan with US$2.4 billion, and Hong Kong with US$2.66 billion (all figures PPP adjusted).

China – Size matters

Some world-beating figures include the number of researchers in China – put at a staggering 1.48 million and “unequivocally the world’s highest”, according to the report, ahead of the 1.26 million researchers in the US, 660,000 in Japan and 190,000 in India, as revealed by UNESCO statistics for 2013.

Representing just under 17% of the world’s researchers in 2009, China’s R&D manpower was 19% of the world’s total by 2013.

China’s share of global science publications rose from almost 10% in 2008 to just over 20% in 2014, while gross domestic expenditure on R&D doubled from 10.2% of gross domestic product, or GDP, in 2007 to 19.6% of GDP in 2013.

As a percentage of GDP, China’s R&D spending in 2013 was 2.08%, surpassing the average for the 28 nation European Union, though still behind the 2.8% of GDP spent by the US in 2012 and well behind Japan’s 3.47% and Korea’s 4.15% of GDP, which puts the two developed Asian countries in the lead in both Asia and globally in terms of R&D spending.

Yet despite China’s soaring spending, the report notes, science and technology output in terms of innovation and breakthroughs is relatively modest, an issue that is of concern to the Chinese government, the report notes.

Even with record publications and patents registered, “the level of dependence of Chinese enterprises on foreign technologies is of some concern”, according to the report.

Visible world-class achievements such as Nobel Prizes for home grown science are still elusive – the first science Nobel awarded to China came only this year for work in the field of traditional medicine.


India, with just 0.82% of its GDP spent on R&D, is also over-reliant on Western science and technology, including technologies imported by Western multinationals which have an increasing presence in the country, the report notes.

“Computer software or IT-related patents are almost all secured by multinational companies which have established dedicated R&D centres in India to take advantage of the skilled, yet cheap labour in the field of software engineering and applications,” the report says.

India has also been building capability in other high-tech industries such as space technology – as evidenced by its successful maiden voyage to Mars in September 2014. Innovation in India is heavily concentrated geographically in a small number of states and cities, and in industrial sectors such as pharmaceuticals or ICT services.

India also specialises in frugal innovation, with a growing local market for pro-poor inventions such as low-cost medical devices.

Nonetheless, its sheer size means that India is a global R&D player comparable to the large European economies. R&D investment in India, including by business, has been growing but the intensity has not risen appreciably in recent years, the report says.

The number of R&D personnel in India increased by 2.43% annually between 2005 and 2010 due to hiring by private companies. Over the same period the number of government employees engaged in R&D actually declined.

Some 46% of Indian researchers work for the government, and the government sector also spent the majority of the R&D budget, 60% compared to 35% from industry and 4% in universities.

Japan and Korea

Japan continues to be one of the most R&D intensive manufacturing economies in the world, despite setbacks such as the Fukushima disaster and other challenges such as an ageing labour force and flat economic growth, which has seen fewer students entering doctoral programmes and a decline in the number of publications by Japanese scientists.

While Japanese spending on science and technology is relatively high by international standards, it has been affected by the global economic downturn of the past decade, its own anaemic growth rates and the major earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011.

Gross domestic expenditure on R&D had been growing consistently before plunging by nearly 10% as the global economic crisis hit in 2009, with spending only beginning to rebound in 2013.

In addition, the Fukushima disaster “has shaken the public’s trust not only in nuclear technology but also in science and technology in general", the UNESCO report said.

A new push in funding university-industry research collaborations, a move away from basic research, a shift towards ‘green innovation’ and renewable energy, and a concentration on aeronautics and engineering is the current focus in Japan.

South Korea is another R&D intensive economy, spending 4.15% of GDP on R&D. Unlike Japan it is shifting its emphasis towards basic research – more than doubling the share of basic research in its R&D spending between 2007 and 2013. At the same time it has been allocating a bigger amount from 2013 onwards to R&D in new industrial growth areas such as solar energy and space launch vehicles.

Its international Science Business Belt in Daejeon will be home to 18 universities, several science parks and research centres, including a heavy ion accelerator due for completion by 2021 further cementing growth in basic research.

Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, human resources in science and technology are primarily concentrated in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

More than half of researchers are employed by the higher education sector in most countries in Southeast Asia – in Malaysia it is four out of five researchers. The exception is Singapore where half of researchers are employed by industry compared to between 30% and 39% elsewhere in the region. In Indonesia and Vietnam the government is a major employer of researchers.

In terms of research training, Malaysia and Singapore stand out for their significant investment in tertiary education over the past decade. The share of the education budget devoted to higher education has risen from 20% to over 35% between 2009 and 2013 in Singapore and to 37% in Malaysia – though there are now signs of a slowdown in Malaysia.

Like Japan, Singapore’s R&D efforts were also thrown off track by the post-2008 global financial crisis which reduced international demand for exports and resulted in cutbacks in R&D spending. Gross expenditure on R&D fell back to 2% of GDP after 2008, rather than powering on to 3% as the government had planned.

“The contraction in business expenditure on R&D since 2008 was largely responsible” for the failure to reach the 3% of GDP target, the report noted. Singapore nonetheless reset itself the ambitious target of raising gross domestic expenditure on R&D to 3.5% of GDP by 2015, among the ranks of big global R&D spenders.

Singapore nevertheless was able to develop into an international hub for R&D in the Asia-Pacific region, exporting almost half of the Southeast Asian region’s high-tech goods.

Over the past decade, the city-state has invested heavily in state-of-the-art facilities and equipment and offered attractive salary packages to prominent scientists and engineers, driving up Singapore’s research intensity to one of the highest levels in the world – 6,438 researchers per million inhabitants in 2012, the most recent year for which comparable statistics are available.

This compares to just over 4,000 per million inhabitants for the US, while within Asia it is just over 5,000 in Japan and South Korea, 1,784 in Malaysia, but just 137 in India.

According to Singapore’s National Research Foundation, its long-term goal is to become one of the most research intensive, innovative economies in the world in order to create high-value jobs and prosperity.