OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard: Innovation and Growth in Knowledge Economies

When the Reverend William Whewell invented the term “scientist” in 1834, a natural philosopher could probably have read everything published in his (or very rarely her) field and would have known most if not all of the other researchers. There were only 100 or so scientific journals and even by the turn of the century there were only 10 physics PhDs awarded a year in the US (“physicist” was another of Whewell’s neologisms).

Today, Pubmed alone has 21 million articles, adding an average of one every minute, and as Duncan Hull points out, it concentrates on biomedical literature so a huge number of physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering and computer science papers are indexed elsewhere, perhaps around 50 million in all.

The latest OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard uses an index of how this mass of information is cited to explore trends in where research is being done and what impact it has.

Intuition still plays a role in scientific breakthroughs, and the individual who can see a connection nobody spotted is vital to progress, but the most influential science these days is done within networks, not only of individuals but of institutions, and at international level.

The Scoreboard shows that greater scientific specialisation and cross-border collaboration can result in increased innovation and the broader the collaboration, the higher the impact of the research. Top research remains highly concentrated though, with 40 of the world’s top 50 universities in the US when all disciplines are considered.  On a subject-by-subject basis, the picture is more varied, with the UK playing a leading role in social sciences, and China with 6 of the top 50 in pharmacology, toxicology and pharmaceutics.

Patents are another way of tracking the impact of science. However, the best level of protection is subject to debate. If protection is weak, technology that exploits an innovation will spread more quickly, boosting growth. At the same time, weak protection reduces the incentive to spend money on R&D.

The quality of patents themselves can be a problem. The Scoreboard’s data show that quality has fallen by 20% over the past two decades in nearly all the countries studied. “The rush to protect even minor improvements in products or services is overburdening patent offices. This slows the time to market for true innovations and reduces the potential for breakthrough inventions.”

One of the most striking parts of the industry section of the STI Scoreboard is the relative decline of manufacturing in OECD countries. In 1990 the G7 countries accounted for two-thirds of world manufacturing value added but they now account for less than half. By 2009, China had almost caught up with the US (and may have overtaken it by now).

The good news for OECD countries is that investment in the intangible assets expected to be the new sources of growth, such as education and skills or organisation, is growing.

Are all patents being filed true innovations? Who is leading this global race? Find out more in this video

Patrick Love

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