Global R&D: The Stagnant US Position

Global R&D: The Stagnant US Position

Timothy Taylor 11/02/2020 3

Research and development isn't enough by itself. New discoveries needs to be brought into the economy in the form of new companies, new products, and new jobs. But it matters.

A long-standing concern among economists is that a market-oriented economy may tend to underinvest in R&D, because even with intellectual property like patents and trade secret law, an innovator captures on average only a modest share of the social benefits from R&D. Thus, a variety of estimates suggest thatthe social return from more R&D spending is 60%, or that the US should be aiming over time to double its R&D spending

In a global context, the US efforts to invest in R&D look stagnant. Here are some figures from a January 2020 report of the National Science Foundation and the National Science Board, called "The State of U.S. Science & Engineering 2020," 

This figure shows total domestic spending on R&D (government, private-sector, nonprofits). The US leads the way. The purple line is China, which surpassed Japan about a decade ago and Europe about five years ago.

If you look at the growth rate of R&D from 2000-2017, you can see that the China is the most obvious area catching up to the US, but certainly not the only one.  

As a result of these ongoing shifts, the US used to be the preeminent region for R&D spending. But now, the the primary geographical home of most global R&D is the East and South Asia region.

One issue is that the US spends about 2.5% of GDP on R&D in most years, give or take a few tenths of a percent. Germany, Japan, and South Korea spend more. China spends a lower share of GDP on R&D, but the share has been rising and of course China's GDP has also been growing quite rapidly in recent decades. 

In the US, government spending on R&D has been pretty flat for the last decade or so; instead, it has been business spending on R&D leading the way. Business involvement in R&D spending is clearly a good thing, because it suggests that business are seeing ways to bring new discoveries into the day-to-day operations. However, there are also concerns that when it comes to research and development, business can be heavier on the "D" and lighter on the "R." The giant corporate laboratories of the past like AT&T's Bell Labs, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, IBM's Watson Labs, and DuPont's Purity Hall have diminished in scope or closed altogether. Relatively few modern companies finance research in basic science, or in long-horizon, high-risk projects that may turn out to be central to whole new industries.

When confronted with these kinds of issues, a standard US response is to raise suspicions that the quality of R&D being done in China or across other countries of east and south Asia may not be very high. It's of course hard to measure the quality of research, but one method is to look at whether research articles are heavily cited by follow-up research. The NSF report explains: 

The impact of an economy’s S&E [science & engineering] research can be compared through the representation of its articles among the world’s top 1% of cited articles, normalized to account for the size of each country’s pool of S&E publications. This normalized value is referred to as an index and is similar to a standardized score. For example, if a country’s global share of top articles is the same as its global share of all publication output, the index is 1.0. The U.S. index was 1.9 in 2016, meaning that its share of the top 1% of cited articles was about twice the size of its share of total S&E articles (Figure 22). Between 2000 and 2016, the EU index of highly cited articles grew from 1.0 to 1.3 while China’s index more than doubled, from 0.4 to 1.1, indicating rising impact from both areas.

In short, this metric suggests that US research efforts are more likely to be in the top 1% of the research literature. It also suggests that the gap is closing.

I often see proposals for the US to focus on building its transportation infrastructure, like roads, bridges, railroads, and airports. One can certainly make a reasonable case for such investments. But I also suspect that transportation spending is not going to be the main driver for leading global economies for the remaining four-fifths of the 21st century. A serious national conversation on how best to expand US R&D spending substantially is overdue. 

A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist


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  • John Bird

    For America to be a high-growth, high productivity, high-wage economy -- this must change.

  • Sam Wilson

    Excellent article

  • Robert McEwan

    I doubt the government can do much to change that

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.


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