May 2010

The Global State of Science Funding

Recession hits the research budgets of some nations especially hard.


Global FundingWhile federal science funding has remained relatively stable in the U.S. through the recent worldwide financial crisis, scientists in other nations have seen alarming headlines. “Financial crisis squeezes African science funding,” reported the Science and Development Network last October (1). “Spain poised to chop science funding,” proclaimed the Science|Business Network (2). And, in December, from The Guardian: “Cuts mark ‘sad day for British science’” (3).

After the pessimistic predictions regarding science budget cuts last year, however, 2010 brought good news to some nations: decreases in funding for science education and research have been less drastic than once thought, and, in some cases, have even been avoided altogether.

Good and Bad News for the EU

In Spain, for example, the national economy has been reeling from a high unemployment rate and climbing government debts. But, despite the threat of science cuts, the most recent budget will keep science funding at a similar level as last year. The Spanish science budget may have been saved in part by Spain’s assumption of the presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2010, which put pressure on the Spanish government to conform to stated EU goals regarding research support. “We see the European innovation plan and the launching of the 2020 Strategy [including an investment in knowledge and technology] as opportunities to place science and innovation firmly at the heart of Europe’s future,” declared Cristina Garmendia, Spain’s minister of science and innovation, at a February meeting of EU research ministers (4).

However, not all EU member countries have fared as well. In the United Kingdom, for example, the national budgets for higher education, science and research are all facing substantial decreases by 2013, according to the prebudget report released in December by the chancellor of the exchequer (5). Responding to the cuts, predicted to be at least £600 million ($903 million), representatives of several British universities wrote a letter to The Guardian, stating, “[W]e are deeply concerned that cuts of this magnitude in overall funding will erode the sustainability of our research and affect even the most outstanding universities” (6).

In recent years, researchers in the U.K. have been relatively fortunate in terms of funding. According to the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 report (7), the U.K. was seventh worldwide in research and development expenditures in 2007 (the latest year for which data are available), putting its R&D spending at 1.8 percent of its gross domestic product. This was similar to Canada’s R&D/GDP ratio of 1.9 percent, but lower than that of the U.S. (2.7 percent), and substantially less than those of Japan and South Korea (3.4 and 3.5 percent, respectively).

Slowing Funding in Asia

Asian nations, in particular, have been increasing their research expenditures over the past decade. China, for example, had an R&D/GDP ratio of 1.5 percent in 2007— comparatively low, but impressive, given its 2.5-fold increase since 1996. Demonstrating its commitment to research despite the recession, the Chinese government announced an increase of 8 percent to the national science and technology budget next year (compared to a 30 percent increase in 2009 (8)). And, despite fears of drastic budget cuts, Japan’s 2010 science budget remained largely stable, although certain programs, such as a project to build a next-generation supercomputer, will face deeper cuts (9).

Little Money for Research in South America and Africa

Even as the pace at which nations increase science funding slows in Asia, Europe and North America, in terms of gross expenditures, these regions still invest far more in research and development than South America, Africa and Oceania. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics reported that Australia spent 2.2 percent of its GDP on research and development in 2006, but the highest R&D/GDP ratios in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa approached only 1 percent in Brazil and South Africa, respectively (10).

In fact, Africa’s leaders have committed to increasing their research and development expenditures to at least 1 percent of GDP. But, the recession has hurt the economies of developing countries to an even greater extent than it has the developed world.

In October of last year, TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, held its 11th General Conference in Durban, South Africa. More than 400 attendees gathered to mark the increasing importance of science and technology in Africa, but amid the celebration, there was concern. Because of the global recession, there has been a decrease in science funding from some sources, commented Jean-Pierre Ezin, commissioner for human resources, science and technology for the African Union. “The future is worrying for all.”

Making Their Voices Heard

If there is a bright side to the recent decreases in science funding, it’s that people who understand the importance of investing in science are making their voices heard. The University of California system is struggling with steep cuts to research budgets, faculty furloughs and increased student fees resulting from California’s fiscal crisis. In September, UC faculty, students and staff members participated in a system-wide walkout to protest the budget cuts (11). “I actually think the students ought to be angry,” remarked Mark G. Yudof, UC president, at a Board of Regents meeting last September.

Elsewhere, protesters have issued letter-writing campaigns to denounce decreases in science funding — and in some countries, their message is getting through. Spain and Japan restored science funding this year following a public outcry, led by the scientific community, over budget proposals that slashed resources for research and education.

Worldwide, policymakers are coming to the realization that continued investments in science and technology are crucial for future economic stability and success. “When we fail to invest in research, we fail to invest in the future,” declared President Obama last September. If only every nation’s science budget could reflect that sentiment.


1. Makoni, M. (2009) Financial Crisis Squeezes African Science Funding. Science and Development Network, Oct. 22.
2. Jimenez, C. (2009) Spain Poised to Chop Science Funding. Science|Business Network Nov. 26.
3. Sample, I. (2009) Cuts Mark ‘Sad Day for British Science.’ The Guardian, Dec. 16.
4. Research Ministers Adopt Declaration on Role of Science. Spain National R&D Information Service, Feb. 9.
5. 2009 Pre-Budget Report, HM Treasury, Dec. 9.
6. Arthur, M., and Piatt, W. (2010) Universities Face Meltdown— and All of Britain Will Suffer. The Guardian, Jan. 11.
7. Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, National Science Board, National Science Foundation.
8. Jia, H. (2010) China Slows R&D Funding Growth. Royal Society of Chemistry, March 10.
9. Normile, D. (2010) 2010 Science Budget Not Apocalyptic, as Feared. Science 327, 131.
10. Global Education Digest 2009, UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
11. Asimov, N. (2009) Walkout Called Over UC Budget Cuts. San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 16. 

Leslie W. Chinn is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

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