Early View Article - How many people in the world do research and development?

How many people in the world do research and development?

The traditional approach to comparing research and development (R&D) capacity across countries has been to compare Gross Domestic R&D expenditures (GERD). In this paper, we argue for an expansion of R&D capacity that includes people engaged in research and research and development activities (research human capital density, RHCD). To achieve this goal, we first discuss how to estimate counts of researchers and create a measure of researcher human capital density within a country. Next, we examine whether RHCD is a useful variable in models of innovation capacity. Finally, we consider whether RHCD has explanatory power for models of research outputs including patents and publications. We find that RHCD has more explanatory power than GERD in the production of patents and publications. We argue that surveys of individuals that include questions on R&D activities are useful for assessing innovation capacity, and, if adopted more broadly, can provide a strategic framework for countries and regions to develop human capital to support innovative activities.

Policy Implications

  • To align with the more inclusive definition of ‘researcher’ in the 2015 Frascati manual, ‘researcher’ and ‘R&D person’ should be equated in UNESCO data as any person that engages in or provides services to directly support R&D as a primary or secondary activity during their workday.
  • Firm-based (employer) surveys provide insight on R&D activities at the organization, sector, and national level. However, they do not shed light on the occupations or educational background of the people engaged in research activities. We recommend that UNESCO adopt individual and occupational surveys to measure self-reported research and development work activities to support more inclusive assessment of R&D personnel, education flows, and innovation capacity.
  • We encourage countries to augment their industrial reporting with occupational surveys to better understand the relationships between educational investments and workforce. An option is to implement this data collection through census procedures, or through a regular survey of tertiary education completers.
  • R&D firms can assist with the determination of human capital density by surveying employees and providing anonymized educational data to national statistical agencies.


Photo by fauxels