The United Nations recently created a Science Advisory Board (which by the way, includes Susan Avery, the person responsible for bringing me to the University of Colorado when she was an administrator here). The SAB just released a major report, The Future of Scientific Advice to the United Nations, A Summary Report to the Secretary-General of the United Nations from the Scientific Advisory Board.

The report contains much of what one might expect in such high level documents, such as exhortations about the importance of science and a call to institutionalize the SAB. But some of the advice is misplaced.

Specifically, it calls for nations to devote more money to science. Usually, science advice refers to what science can do to help decision making, not what decision makers can do to help science. The report states:

Scientific research – both basic and applied – deserves greater support from all nations. Even the poorest countries should invest a minimum of one percent of gross domestic product in research, and more advanced nations should invest three percent or more.

This recommendation is odd not just because it seems out of place, but because it is calling for the poorest nations on earth to re-prioritize spending towards R&D.

What would the recommendation imply?

Using global GDP data from the World Bank (here), the table below runs the numbers (1% of GDP for the poorer two categories and 3% for the wealthier two).

CLASS OF NATION 2015 GDP UN SAC R&D Funding recommendation
Low income $1,049,836 $10,498
Lower middle income $18,803,606 $188,036
Upper middle income $40,031,440 $1,200,943
High income $53,062,628 $1,591,879
TOTAL $112,947,510 $2,991,356
in billions $

In 2015, according to R&D Magazine’s annual survey (here in PDF), the world spent about $1,883 billion on R&D. The UN SAC is asking for an increase of more than $1 trillion, with about 10% of that increase coming from low and lower middle income nations.

I can think of nothing more delegitimizing of the notion of science advice to governments than taking advantage of an opportunity to explain how we experts can help you decision makers, to instead tell you decision makers how to help us researchers.

Go ahead, give us $1 trillion, and that includes $200 billion from you poor nations. And if you like that advice, we’ve got plenty more to offer.

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