When European heads of state met in Barcelona in 2002, they agreed on a commitment to raise spending on research and development to 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2010. The European Union (EU) would become a hub of the ‘knowledge economy’ with high-tech industries and an innovative, skilled workforce. That was the way to compete in the globalized world, safeguarding jobs and improving society.

The first figures to be released on R&D funding since this declaration don't exactly match the same vision. Rather than seeing a growth in support, funding is stagnating, according to the Key Figures 2005 on Science, Technology, and Innovation published by the European Commission. Funding grew by only 0.2% between 2002 and 2003. If this trend continues, spending will reach only 2.2% of GDP by 2010.

This leaves Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik a worried man. “We must heed this wake-up call. If the current trends continue, Europe will lose the opportunity to become a leading global knowledge-based economy.”

Europe has always looked to the US with jealousy. Here R&D is funded at 2.59% of GDP, of which 63.1% is provided by industry (compared with only 55.6% in the EU). It is not only the amount of funding. More papers are produced by US researchers and they receive more citations. As far as innovation can be judged, Europe seems to lag far behind. Furthermore, research careers must be more attractive in the US, as there are many more researchers per head of population. Salaries are greater, the universities are ranked higher, and more is spent per student [Dosi et al.Evaluating and Comparing the Innovation Performance of the US and the EU, European Commission, (2005)].

While the gap to the US still remains and shows no sign of being closed, the situation is not all bad. There is universal support among the EU member states for the doubling of the Union's research spend and the establishment of a European Research Council. There is also the recent announcement that the ITER fusion project is to be sited in France. But Potocnik is also beginning to look over his shoulder.

There has been a 20 fold increase in Chinese papers published in international journals between 1981 and 2003 [Science Watch (2004) 15 (5), 1]. In materials science, China now accounts for 10% of all new papers, trailing only the contributions from the US and Japan. But it is not just volume, the quality of these papers is also improving. In 2003, some 73 500 citations were made to Chinese-authored materials science papers, placing China sixth in the league table.

China still has a lower R&D intensity than the EU (1.31% of GDP in 2003), but has increased funding at ∼10% per year since 1997. At this rate, it is far more likely that, by 2010, China will be spending the same proportion on research as the EU, than the EU will meet its Barcelona pledge.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)71104-4