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How Much Do Countries Invest in R&D?

New UNESCO data tool reveals emerging players

UNESCO Institute for Statistics

PARIS—As the UN General Assembly prepares to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UNESCO Institute for Statistics has released a new data tool showing the leaders and emerging players in research and development (R&D).   

“Innovation is key to achieving each of the Sustainable Development Goals. So it is essential to track R&D investment in the knowledge, technology and thinking that drives innovation in countries,” said Silvia Montoya, director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

SDG 9 calls on governments to promote sustainable industrialization and innovation by ramping up spending on R&D and increasing the number of researchers. Both indicators are featured in the new data tool entitled: ‘How much does your country invest in R&D?’

The top five R&D performers in absolute terms (R&D expenditure) are all large economies: United States followed by China, Japan, Germany and Republic of Korea. But the ranking changes dramatically according to the data that will be used to monitor SDG 9 (R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP): Republic of Korea is the world leader followed by Israel, Japan, Finland, and Sweden.

Regions have been setting their own spending targets for some time: the best-known being the European Union (EU) target to raise overall R&D investment to 3% of GDP by 2020.

According to UIS data, only six countries worldwide have managed to surpass the 3% target, and three are smaller EU economies: Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. These, in turn, lag behind Japan with 3.6% and Israel with an impressive 4.1%. And all of them trail behind South Korea—the world leader—with 4.3%. Austria, Germany, and Switzerland hover around 3% as does the biggest spender of all: the United States.

Few countries in other regions compete with these proportions. In Central and Eastern Europe, Slovenia leads with 2.4% compared to the Russian Federation at 1.2%. In Central Asia, the figure hovers around 0.2%, as in the case for Kazakhstan. Morocco tops the league in the Arab States with just 0.7%. Brazil is the leader in Latin America, with 1.2%, while India leads in South and West Asia with 0.8%. In Africa, the African Union is aiming for 1%, but only Kenya, Mali, and South Africa approach the target.

China is achieving an astonishing average annual growth rate of 18.3% in R&D spending, compared to just 1.4% across the rest of the world’s upper-middle-income countries, according to UIS data. China’s R&D spending only amounts to 2% of its GDP, but this means that the country is pouring about PPP$369 billion into this sector each year. As the share of global R&D expenditure by high-income countries fell from 88% in 1996 to 69.3% by 2013, China alone filled that gap, increasing its share from 2.5% to 19.6%. This means that China is increasingly approaching the United States, which accounts for almost 30% of global R&D expenditure.

Globally, there were almost 1,083 researchers for every one million people in 2013. However, the share of researchers in middle-income countries, excluding China, fell from 17% to 15% between 1996 and 2013—a worrying downward trend with global implications for sustainable development.