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Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Science Funding Misinformation

A headline on a news story falsely claims that ‘9 countries outspend the US on science.’ In fact, America spends more than all nine combined.

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Seeking firm numbers regarding the amount of money the United States spends on scientific research, I recently typed the following phrase into Google:

US R&D spending versus other countries nations

A list of results appeared, the first of which was a link to Wikipedia, not always the most reliable source. The second was an outrageously inaccurate headline from Business Insider. It declared that “9 countries outspend the US on science”:

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This is a shameful example of fake news. Of distorting reality. Of telling people the opposite of the truth.

Clicking the link took me to a page with a slightly different headline: “These 9 countries spend a greater share of money on science than the United States.” The news story, published a year ago, is about an OECD report titled “Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2015,” which in turn is based mostly on 2013 data.

The news story begins by talking about US kids scoring poorly on math tests, and the smaller percentage of US undergraduates who earn science and engineering degrees relative to other countries. The journalist’s thesis is that America is falling behind. We then encounter a few weasel words:

while the US still spends the most money on research and development, nine other countries outspend the nation when you look at that cash as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) — an important benchmark of a nation’s total economic value.

The US spent $433 billion on R&D in 2013…

Notice what has happened here. The journalist has admitted that the US “spends the most.” She even provides a number: $433 billion in a single year.

But the story she wants to tell is about neglect, inadequate funding, and the loss of international prestige. So the remainder of her article relies on a numerical trick. Of the thousands of numbers in the OECD report, she chooses to focus on a supremely arbitrary measure – percentage of GDP.

She tells us that the $433 billion America spent on research represents only 2.7% of its overall GDP. Nine other countries, she says, spent more. Look at Finland, she says. It spent 3.3%.

Sure, but it’s a tiny country (population 5.4 million) with a small economy. 3.3% of an economy this size doesn’t amount to much. In fact, Finland spent less than $7 billion on research.

And look at Denmark, insists the journalist – 3.1% of it’s GDP. With a population similar to Finland, Denmark likewise spent just over $7 billion.

In what universe are these comparisons meaningful? Who cares if lilliputian countries spend a few fractions more of their GDP? How absurd to expect America, with its enormous economy and its 318 million population, to feel concerned or ashamed by this state of affairs.

Then there’s Israel, Austria, Switzerland, and Sweden – whose research budgets were $10, $11, $12, and $13 billion respectively. Combine their spending with Finland and Denmark, and we discover that two-thirds of the nations who are allegedly outspending America, account for a total of $60 billion between them. A mere 14% of the US budget.

The remaining three nations – South Korea, Germany, and Japan – are in a different category. They spent $68, $96, and $155 billion on research in 2013. Add up those numbers and you get $319 billion. Toss in the $60 we’ve already discussed and the grand total is $379 billion.

In other words, it’s a lie to declare – as does the Business Insider headline that pops up in Google searches – that “Nine countries outspend the US on science.”

It’s sloppy, agenda-driven journalism to grudgingly mention in passing, as if it weren’t central to the discussion, that America spent “the most.”

It didn’t just spend the most. It outspent all nine of those other countries combined, with 54 billion left over. If you believe, as the journalist who wrote this wretched nonsense apparently does, that there’s a relationship between science funding and a vibrant, prosperous society, the real story is that the US rocks.

But no, let’s nit-pick GDP percentages. Let’s misinform the public about what’s actually going on.

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As a postscript, three things jump out at me when I survey this table:

  1. There are 40 nations on this list. The two that spend the highest percentage of GDP on research are Israel (4.2%) and South Korea (4.1%). Israel’s security is at risk; its neighbours frequently fire rockets at it. South Korea shares a border with belligerent and volatile North Korea. Both those countries, therefore, have an incentive to invest unusual amounts of money in certain kinds of scientific research.
  2. An entirely different news story could easily have been written: India spends a mere 0.8% of its GDP on scientific research, Russia 1.1%, Canada and the UK 1.6%, Australia 2.1%, and France 2.2%. From this perspective, America’s 2.7% suddenly doesn’t look so bad.
  3. Only one country comes anywhere near America’s $433 billion research budget  – China. If this data is accurate (numbers supplied by Communist countries warrant skepticism), China’s spending is approaching 75% of the US. Next in line is Japan at 36%. Here are the top 10:top10_rd_2013_oecd

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2017 by in ethical & philosophical, media and tagged , .
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