Jun 18, 2020 - Science

Allies could shift U.S.-China scientific balance of power

Adapted from Center for Security and Emerging Technology using data from OECD and Global R&D Funding Forecast data; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Adapted from Center for Security and Emerging Technology using data from OECD and Global R&D Funding Forecast data; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The U.S. and China are the world's biggest spenders on research and development but still only make up about half of global investment in research, a recent report highlights.

The big picture: Competition between the two countries — measured by published papers, patents, educational degrees or the extent of investment — dominates discussions about global progress in science and technology.

  • That ignores significant R&D spending by a handful of countries that could be potential collaborators, argues Melissa Flagg of Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

What's happening: Spending on R&D has grown around the world over the last 30 years and, at the same time, the U.S. share of global R&D fell.

  • During the Cold War, the U.S. accounted for an estimated 69% of global R&D; in 2018, it was 28%, according to the CSET report, which draws on data from OECD. China's spending is roughly the same global share.
  • "The R&D spending of the United States and just six like-minded nations with a true commitment to R&D funding represents more than 50 percent of global R&D investment," CSET's Melissa Flagg writes. She cites Japan and Germany as traditional heavy hitters but also countries like South Korea, which spent upwards of 3.8% of their GDP on R&D.

Why it matters: Flagg argues that reality is an opportunity for the U.S. to formally partner with countries and set standards and values around sharing data, transparency, reproducibility and research integrity. (The issue is of top concern because in international collaborations and open scientific exchange, some researchers or programs have not held the same values, jeopardizing U.S. research.)

  • Compared with formal efforts like the Human Genome Project or CERN, "the greater number of projects are 'bottom up' activities that are forged by researchers themselves, often with funding from their own governments, but where they seek to work with others because of the benefits of the science that results," says Ohio State University's Caroline Wagner.

Historically formal science and technology alliances came out of larger political ones and were taken for granted, says Flagg. "If you really believe technology is a foundation for critical aspects of leadership globally, economic security and military capability, then you can’t just have this be a sidebar for politicians."

  • And since the U.S., China and Europe are governed by different laws and values, she says, there needs to be a conversation rather than assuming European countries are onboard because China's tech is cheapest or because of tradition, in the case of the U.S. and its allies.

The bottom line: "No nation will enjoy complete global technological dominance," Flagg writes.

Go deeper: The stakes of a swift U.S.-China decoupling

Go deeper