Science – An untapped economic resource

No one doubts that science is the engine of progress and well-being. Social perception studies carried out by prestigious entities such as the FECYT consistently show the high esteem that Spanish society professes to the science and to scientists. However, this appreciation does not really transcend the ornamental field. If we were to ask about the need to increase the budget allocated to science and innovation, surely the majority would answer in the affirmative.

But it would be a fallacious question that would generate a wrong idea. Since resources are limited, the truly informative question would be, in my opinion, the following: would you be willing, on a binding basis, to substantially increase the research budget at the expense of other large items such as health or pensions? It is not difficult to guess the result.

The key that allows us to understand this apparent inconsistency lies in the instrumental interests of our current society, which prioritizes the immediate utility over the superfluous. Contrary to more developed societies, which since the Industrial Revolution have understood the economic potential of science and have been able to materialize it, the concept of aesthetic uselessness that prevails in ours explains the absence of a resounding social demand for adequate investment in science. . In fact, your budget is often thought of as “R&D spending” rather than investment. Although it is only a detail, it reveals our collective unconscious.

This social reluctance is not free. It is due to the historical lack of transformation of knowledge into value, and the lack of education about the interest of a technology-based economy. And it is consistent with the level of “expenditure” on R&D in our country, which stands at 1.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), well below the average for the European Union (2.0% ), and completely out of line with most of the most prosperous economies in the world, such as the United States (2.8%), China (2.1%), Japan (3.2%), Germany (3.0 %), United Kingdom (1.7%), France (2.2%), Norway (2.1%), Sweden (3.3%), Finland (2.7%), Denmark (3.1% ), Singapore (2.2%), or South Korea (4.6%).

And none of these figures is close to its optimal level. A multitude of studies by prestigious economists such as those of the recent winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics, Paul Romer, have highlighted the decisive role of research and innovation in growth and economic sustainability.

According to Endogenous Growth Theoryhuman capital, innovation and knowledge contribute significantly to boosting growth because they have an effect spillover (of leverage) on the economy, and reduce the effect of diminishing returns from capital accumulation. In fact, recent models estimate that the investment in R&D that would optimize its return is, in the US, 2 to 4 times higher than it is today. The potential for improvement in our country is therefore enormous.

We do not start from scratch. Our scientific performance is reasonably high, as evidenced by the fact that Spain, the 13th largest economic power in the world, occupies the 10th position in the world ranking of scientific production. However, in innovation, that is to say in knowledge enhancement, we are ranked 19th in the European Union, and 42nd in the world, far from expectations. It is therefore essential to channel knowledge in the productive fabric and in the technology industry in a much more structured, integrated and efficient way. This is the case in most of the great technological epicenters, such as Boston, Taipei, Seoul, Toronto, Uppsala, New York, the City Londoner or Silicon Valley in San Francisco.

Private investment in R&D is another of our shortcomings. In the U.S, 73% of spending is carried out by companies, that is, 3 times higher than that of the public sector. In Spain, the private sector invests 0.7% of GDP, more or less half that of the public. It is critical to energize the technology sector with decisive actions that, due to its legislative and financial capacity, can only be undertaken by the State. We are not talking about tenths, but about large budget readjustments capable of generating sufficient critical mass to guarantee the return on investment, both in the public and private spheres. This and nothing else is what the countries that generate and export technology do.

But let’s be real. Public policies, subject to the periodic electoral examination of the popular will, cannot assume these postulates without a firm social support. It is therefore essential to convince society through a pedagogical culture based on data and facts, even if they are provided by the example of the most industrialized countries. This is the key, and we will not get out of economic paralysis until we fully assume these postulates.

The definitive solution goes through education, especially for children. But even an (unthinkable) immediate and forceful action in this sense would take a generation to consolidate, until the new minds formed a social majority and dominated public opinion. This is complicated if whoever has to instruct tomorrow’s innovators now does not have this conviction. Worse still, during a demographic generation there are usually several political generations. It would be enough for one of them to interrupt the process to ruin the change.

But let’s not hide behind the politicians, who undoubtedly bear their responsibility. The immediate answer and hope are in each one of us. Going back to the initial question, would you be willing to do without some benefits or pay more taxes to seriously invest in the future of the country where your children have to live? If so, sue him decisively. Nobody will do it for you.

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Science – An untapped economic resource