Brussels, 03 Mar 2004
Science is becoming a world system, driven by the quest for knowledge and a desire to share it through greater collaboration. The EU's – indeed, the world's – goal of creating 'knowledge societies' is a natural extension of scientific progress. But can this be accurately measured?
That society benefits from science and technology (S&T) – which feeds economic growth and improvements in health care, education, sustainable production, etc. – is undisputed. But, as we learn more about how economies and societies gain from scientific development, it calls for increasingly sophisticated and wide-reaching data. How else can we monitor the process, and progress towards attaining a better quality of life?
This is the thrust of a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), published in its January newsletter A World of Science. "Knowledge underpinning development is, of course, not equal to scientific knowledge," it states. "But no country will be able to achieve, and durably maintain, prosperity and a high quality of life without using the results of science and ensuring a well-educated population," adding that this should be done equitably in order to help bridge the divide between developing and developed countries.
Can we really see countries and regions mutating into knowledge societies, and, if so, how do we measure this? Inter-governmental agencies, such as the World Trade Organisation, UNESCO and the European Commission, routinely collect information about how well S&T stakeholders are performing. This data is turned into meaningful indicators, such as the European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS), which is one of the benchmarking instruments provided by the EU's Trend Chart on Innovation. It includes a database of innovation policy measures, regular country reports and a series of thematic workshops.
Information society, too
The Union also keeps a close eye on its eEurope goals, which are founded on the principles of "creating an information society for all". According to the 2005 Action Plan, eEurope aims to "provide a favourable environment for private investment and for the creation of new jobs, to boost productivity, to modernise public services, and to give everyone the opportunity to participate in the global information society".
Compound indicators like the EIS are a useful comparative tool for policy-making and provide a birds-eye view of investment and scientific performance in the 'knowledge economy'. One of the most frequently used indicators for international comparisons is gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) as a percentage of a nation's gross domestic product (GDP). This shows which countries and regions are not reaching their research and development targets and which are performing relatively well. For instance, the EU's so-called Barcelona ambition is for Member States to spend 3% of GDP on R&D by the year 2010.
This is somewhat easier for high-income economies with strong education systems, such as Sweden, Finland and Israel, which routinely spend more than 3% a year, according to the Commission's 'Science, Technology and Innovation Key Figures 2003-2004'. However, a great majority of countries around the world spend a tiny fraction of their GDP on research.
Caroline Wagner of the think tank RAND firmly believes that "science is becoming a world system" which, for the most part, is collaborative. She calculates that as many as 50 countries deserve the label "scientifically proficient", but that leaves the majority out in the cold. Progress is being made for many of these countries in, for example, Africa – where governments recently announced their determination to raise R&D spending to 1% of GDP – but the gains are still uneven.
"It is clear that the problems of collecting truly comparative data and making sense of them are huge for the many countries which play only a minor role in [the world's] S&T," the UNESCO report laments. But getting it right is important, it goes on to say, because history has shown that "no single country has succeeded in achieving and sustaining high levels of prosperity and comfort without investing in S&T and exploiting them".