The ISS (not the spaceship) Part I
March 19, 2019

ISS = International State of Science

In Canada, we are fortunate enough to have a federal leader that supports and values science. Though what is the state of science elsewhere?

Often times we are bombarded with news about our own country that we do not learn about what else is going on in the world.

One indicator to see how other countries are approaching science is to investigate the amount of money that is set aside for R&D funding, measured as a percentage of the GDP. The graph below demonstrates the funding in four countries that we are going to investigate, benchmarked against Canada.

% of GDP that is spent on R&D funding in each country

In this post, I tried to pick countries that covered a variety of geographical locations and cultures. Through my researching I found four countries that fit these criteria and had relevant scientific policy news in the past 2 years. This post will cover two of these countries in order to not be too long of a read.

The first country is China. With a population of 1.38 billion people (2013) they have a workforce that very few other countries can rival. Of the workforce employed, there are 2.242 out of every 1000 people (2017) employed in research. In the age group of 25 to 64 at least 9.68% have attended post-secondary education. An educated and research-oriented workforce lead China to spending 2.129% (2017) of their GDP on R&D activities in 2017. (China's GDP was US$12.238 trillion in 2017, (World Bank)).

In an effort to improve research integrity, the political leader of China, Xi Jinping, has instituted a policy that will punish scientists committing scientific misconduct. The crime can be anything from using misleading and forged data, tampering with CVs or faking peer review. The penalties will extend outside of the academic arena and will include restrictions on finding a new job and losing grants or awards. The penalty will also extend to China's social credit system, which can bar people who have not paid fines or debts from applying for insurance or a credit card and even prevent the purchase of plane or train tickets.

Experts hope that researchers will be informed about what constitutes misconduct and what punishment will correspond with each misconduct. A large-scale effort to enforce integrity will be a resource-limited effort, however if successful will have long-term benefits. A looming reminder of the penalties of research misconduct will hopefully encourage new PI's and researchers to act in a more ethical and responsible manner.

China's neighbor Russia only has a population of 143.5 million (2013), however boasts some impressive statistics surrounding its research community. Out of 1000 employees, 5. 692 are employed as a researcher. In the age range of 25-64 53.06% of adults have achieved a post-secondary degree or higher. While it employs more researchers as a country than China, Russia only designates 1.109% (2017) of its GDP to R&D related spending.

Vladimir Putin has a plan to restore the scientific might of Russia before the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 2018, the government dedicated US$3 billion to basic research funding, an impressive 25% from the previous year. Russia now leads Canada, Australia and Switzerland in number of research articles produced each year. (Although, quantity of research should be associated with quality of research).

Russia has attempted to encourage new technology growth within their own country, with multibillion-rouble investments in nanotechnology research in 2007, however this investment has not seen any return yet. Scientists worry Putin's goal to have 5 Russian universities in the top 100 universities in the world will not be enough to compensate for institutional issues that are plaguing Russia's science agenda. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to the suspension of civilian and military science. As well, Putin's main science advisor is banned from entering the United States, so new collaborations with American universities will be difficult. Current geopolitical issues, such as Russia's support of the Syrian government in the current civil war, has spoiled relations with Western scientific bodies. Although there is promise for Russia to collaborate with European countries to help build an experimental fusion reactor in southern France or a x-ray free-electron laser in Germany.

Russian scientists worry that the lack of collaboration will deteriorate the reputation of Russia on the global science podium.

As China implements penalties for scientific misconduct, it begs the question whether they will be responsible with this new ability or misuse it to become a "Big Brother" entity. I agree that scientific misconduct is deleterious to the entire scientific community, but I hope that these new policies do not stifle ingenuity and creativity within the Chinese research community.

Russian scientists around the well-renowned in a variety of fields and their contributions have helped shape our modern world. I find it unfortunate that the country itself has not been able to sustain this scientific innovation. Major political changes and investment will need to happen if Russia wants to regain its former scientific glory.

Stay tuned for part II, where I will be discussing two more countries and the recent political actions that have affected the scientific communities there.

  1. OECD (2019), "Country statistical profile: China 2019/1", in Country statistical profiles: Key tables from OECD, OECD Publishing, Paris,
  2. OECD (2019), "Country statistical profile: Russian Federation 2019/1", in Country statistical profiles: Key tables from OECD, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Written by
Nathan Holwell
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