The global science and engineering (S&E) “landscape” has experienced major shifts and evolution over time; the effect of different growth rates in S&E investment and different areas of S&E concentration across the globe has led to: the “catching up” in particular indicators of S&E activity in parts of the developing world, and S&E specialization in developed nations. As a result, a “multipolar world” for S&E has emerged after decades of preeminence by the developed world. S&E capabilities, until recently located mainly in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, have spread to the developing world, notably to China and other Asian economies that are heavily investing to build their science and technology capabilities.

Multiple models and theories exist for this evolution, constituting the “convergence hypothesis.” Some countries appear to be converging with the leading economies, while others appear to be diverging with them. So long as trailing economies have much to learn from a leading economy’s performance, they will continue to catch up and approach the leader’s performance. However, as the distance between these economies narrows, the amount of unabsorbed knowledge and new technique to be applied begins to diminish, or even exhaust. The catch-up process begins to weaken or terminates unless some unrelated influence comes into play.

However, there are countries that are so far behind the leading economy that it is impractical to profit substantially from emulating the leading economy’s factors of productivity or absorbing their technology. They therefore fall behind, widening the gap between their economic performance even further. Some argue that a country’s ability to converge is a function of capital accumulation, technological innovation, and entrepreneurship which borrows ideas from abroad and adapts them to local circumstances. Others, however, highlight the important role of effective institutions, including incentives and markets, in determining which countries can economically and technologically converge with more advanced economies.

Looking at resources such as the OECD Science, Technology, and Industry Scoreboard; the UNCTAD World Investment Report; and the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators; the convergence and divergence of the global S&E landscape can be seen in R&D investment, research output, and global investment across sectors.

All three conclude that developing countries, particularly China, are experiencing robust growth trends compared to the United States and the rest of the developed economies of the world.

Over the last decade, almost all OECD countries saw increases in R&D investment and expenditure. There is also substantial heterogeneity in the share of “research” compared to “experimental development.” However, global R&D performance continues to remain concentrated in three geographic regions: North America, Europe, and the regions of East/Southeast and South Asia. North America accounted for 28% of worldwide R&D performance in 2015; Europe, including the European Union (EU) accounted for 22%; the combination of the regions of East/Southeast and South Asia (including China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Taiwan) accounted for 40%. The remaining 10% of global R&D comes from the regions of the Middle East, South America, Central Asia, Australia and Oceania, Africa, and Central America and the Caribbean.

In terms of research output, the United States, the EU, and the developed world produce the majority of refereed S&E publications. However, similar to the trends for R&D spending, S&E research output in recent years has grown more rapidly in China and other developing countries when compared with the output of the United States and other developed countries. China’s S&E publication output rose nearly fivefold since 2003. As such, China’s output, in terms of absolute quantity, is now comparable to that of the United States. Research output has also grown rapidly in other developing countries—particularly, Brazil and India.

Finally, looking at global investment, developing economies as a group are expected to gain about 10% of global foreign investment. This includes a sizeable increase in developing Asia, where an improved outlook in major economies is likely to boost investor confidence. Foreign investment into Africa is also expected to increase, with a modest projected rise in oil prices and advances in regional integration. Flows to transition economies are likely to recover further after their economies bottomed out in 2016. Flows to developed economies are expected to hold steady in 2017. In the last year, flows to transition economies almost doubled, to $68 billion, following two years of steep decline – reflecting large privatization deals and increased investment in mining exploration activities.

As can be seen by the statistics and metrics above, the developing world is largely converging with developed economies, and certain developing countries are rapidly increasing their research investments and research output. However, certain regions of the world, particularly those characterized by strong developed economies, continue to lead in research and development. Nonetheless, the rise of developing and transitioning economies in the ranks of research investment, research output, and as locations of investment indicates that the world is becoming “multipolar” for S&E as opposed to as it was traditionally, where a small subset of countries by far dominated the global science and engineering landscape.