By Barbara Casassus

The idea that poorer countries should catch up economically with wealthier ones before spending heavily on R&D was challenged by a report released last week. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report contradicts theories widely held by development professionals and international organizations such as the World Bank.

Although the 34 OECD member countries, which are all industrialized, are likely to dominate much of R&D for the foreseeable future, other nations are starting to make their mark in this area, and will help to redraw the global science, technology and industry (STI) map, according to the analysis. The OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2010, updated every two years, says that "increasingly, countries as diverse as China, South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam are developing broad-based innovation strategies that encompass existing and new technologies, as well as social innovations".

"China is progressing in leaps and bounds," Ester Basri, senior policy analyst in the OECD's science and technology policy division, told Nature.

Thinking globally

Looking to the future, the share of renewable-energy patents among the total filed by so-called BRIICS countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa -- came in at an average of 1.07% in 2007, the last year for which international patent figures are available. That figure is above the world average of 0.89%, Basri says. It was a bit lower than the 1.19% recorded for the European Union (EU), but was much higher than the 0.67% for the United States or 0.47% for Japan.

"There is a more global and pragmatic approach to STI development in emerging countries than there was," adds Mario Cervantes, a senior economist in the OECD's science and technology division. In the past, this was based only on technology transfer between the developed world and poor countries, but now fast-growing developing countries are also helping the less-well off to develop their STI.

South Korea is providing loans and grants to Tanzania to bolster clinical teaching and hospital facilities, while China is helping the African country to develop a state-of-the-art cardiology unit. Meanwhile, India, Brazil and South Africa are collaborating on nanotechnology projects and training researchers together. This kind of cooperation "is hastening the ability of developing countries to innovate, to face global challenges including energy supplies and climate change, and to fight against poverty", says Cervantes.

Invest to innovate

These realities, says the report, challenge "the notion in developmental theories that [poorer] countries need to 'exhaust' their potential for catching up before embarking on their 'own' innovation and R&D activities". As a result, the report notes, more avenues for multilateral research collaboration are opening up.

It adds that OECD members' policies on science and technology are diverging more than ever as a result of the financial and economic crisis. Some countries have reacted by cutting annual research and university budgets, and others look likely to follow. The Netherlands, for example, is considering replacing public subsidies for private-sector research with loans and grants, and a lot of the stimulus packages aimed to lift economies out of the mire are coming to an end, Cervantes notes.

But for the moment a number of other countries, including Austria, Germany, Korea and the United States, have boosted research funding, the report says -- so improving their future prospects for economic growth.

André de Campos, a research fellow in innovation management at the University of Brighton, UK, says he agrees with the OECD's analysis on the expanding role of R&D in developing countries. "This is important if they want to catch up with the rest of the world economically," he says. "It might not be the same R&D in terms of types of activity or themes as in [developed] countries, but without this capability, they will not achieve their development goals."