The importance of the role of scientific research in the economy of the world's countries is rarely disputed. However this impact is mostly indirect, or direct but with only a long-term impact, due to the benefits of scientific discoveries. So the problem of research profitability in the short- to medium-term remains for many countries.
Research financing follows a variety of rules, with funds coming from the public or private sector. For public research, the French National Research Agency uses a few numbers to explain how research is financed in France [fr]:
Les laboratoires de recherche publics sont en partie financés par les crédits budgétaires des universités, des organismes de recherche publics et des agences de financement, dont l'Agence nationale de la recherche (A.N.R.). Ils bénéficient d'autres dotations provenant des régions françaises, des associations caritatives, de l'industrie et de l'Europe. [...] 7 000 projets financés rassemblant plus de 22 000 équipes de recherche publiques et privées entre 2005-2009 et le montant cumulé des financements 2005-2009 est de 3 milliards d'euros.
Public research laboratories are partially funded by budget appropriation from universities, public research bodies, and financial agencies, such as the French National Research Agency (A.N.R.). They also benefit from allocations from French administrative regions, charitable groups, industry, and from Europe. [...] 7,000 projects funded, bringing together over 22,000 private and public research teams between 2005-2009. The cumulative amount financed between 2005-2009 is three billion euros.
Despite the resulting efforts of the government to re-energise the sector [fr], French research is suffering in comparison to its Anglo-Saxon neighbours and is showing signs of running out of steam. David Larousserie puts forward the premise that scientific research in France is competitive but brings little return, in an article entitled “The limited efficacy of public research funding” [fr]:
Les experts soulignent aussi “les bonnes performances en recherche de la France” mais les jugent “moyennes en termes d'innovation et de retombées économiques”. La France publie beaucoup (6e rang mondial) et dépose bon nombre de brevets (4e rang sur les dépôts en Europe), mais des indicateurs “d'innovation” la placent au 24e rang.
Experts also emphasise “the good performance of research in France” but judge it “average in terms of innovation and economic return”. France publishes a lot (ranked 6th in the world) and files a good number of patents (4th place out of all European filings), but ranks 24th according to “innovation” indicators.
He adds that:
Pour expliquer la réduction des marges de manœuvre en dépit d'une enveloppe globale en croissance, les magistrats rappellent que la cause essentielle est l'augmentation des frais de personnel dans les organismes de recherche. Au CNRS, avec des effectifs de fonctionnaires stables, la subvention publique a augmenté de 293 millions d'euros entre 2006 et 2011
To explain the reduced room to manoeuvre despite a growing global budget, magistrates recall that the root cause is the increase in personnel costs in research organisations. At the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), with a stable employee workforce, public subsidy increased by 293 billion euros between 2006 and 2011.
Others think that there are different factors involved, like Patrick Fauconnier, who believes that coordination between the different research organisations leaves a lot to be desired [fr]:
Quand on veut monter une Unité mixte de recherche (UMR), la structure qui permet de partager des contrats de recherche, par exemple entre une université et le CNRS, beaucoup de temps et d’argent sont gâchés en gestion de problèmes administratifs complexes.
When we want to create a joint research unit (UMR), the structure which enables the sharing of research contracts (between a university and the CNRS for example), a lot of time and money is wasted in dealing with complex administrative problems.
Research in Africa
If research is experiencing financial difficulties in France, it's still in its early stages in most African countries. Thus only South Africa appears in the top 30 countries in terms of investment in research and development (R&D). Worse, no French-speaking African country appears in the top 70 of countries investing in research.
And yet Juian Siddle explains that the African continent has everything it needs to become the next large global scientifc hub:
The groundwork is there – knowledge, ingenuity, willingness to learn and adapt, coupled with the rapid expansion of digital technology. All of this is really allowing Africa to play a major part in global scientific collaborations.
Calestous Juma, a professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University, adds that the context for the African continent is different:
The strategic focus for Africa should therefore be on generating research that has immediate local use. It is through such strategies that Africa will be able to make its own unique contributions to the global scientific enterprise
Are we really helping research?
But perhaps, despite promises of help from many governments, scientific research is missing the real support of public opinion, support which would allow it to put pressure on politicians to help research in a sustainable way. That's John Skylar's argument, in an article which responds to the fact that the page “I fucking love science” is a viral phenomenon on the web, but in reality few countries are ready to invest in quality research:
The pattern you’re seeing is a steady drop in funding of science by the government over the last 10 or 20 years. [...] You know what budget doesn’t match this trend? U.S. defense spending. [...] If you loved science, you’d vote based on candidates who want to increase funding for it. You’d make it an issue that actually generates media debate, that sees equal time with the wars we fight