Back in the 1980s, politicians and pundits mourned the migration of blue-collar jobs from advanced industrial countries to emerging economies. More recently, they fretted over the flow of low-level white-collar jobs. In both cases, their one piece of advice for the advanced countries was to do what they did best: innovation.
Think again. Now even innovation appears to be fleeing to low-cost countries, as they seemingly leapfrog the traditional stages of development. Clearly, we are at the beginning of a fundamental shift in where R&D is performed.
Yet you won’t see a sign of that shift in this year’s R&D 100 list, compiled for IEEE Spectrum by Standard & Poor’s. High-cost countries continue to dominate the list, with the United States, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom accounting for more than two-thirds of the firms and more than three-quarters of the R&D spending. Not a single low-cost country has a firm in the top 100, including those based in China or India, even though those two countries are far and away the biggest new magnets for R&D investment.
The reason is simple: the spending trend flies below our radar, which scans the reports of publicly traded multinational corporations. Though ever more of them—including all top 10 firms on our list—are offloading R&D work to their subsidiaries in India and China and still others are subcontracting the work to local vendors, the spending still shows up on the parent companies’ books.
Certainly, there is no regulation that forces firms to break out the locations of R&D spending in their reporting. Just as certainly, there are competitive and even political motives to keep the locations hush-hush. Nobody wants to hear rabble-rousing engineers in the richer countries grousing about the ”giant sucking sound” made by Asia as it slurps up some of the profession’s highest-paid jobs.
In the meantime, you can still learn a lot from the R&D 100, because it tells you whom the innovators are working for, if not where they are working. And, as usual, the highest spending firms are in the automotive and pharmaceutical sectors, each with four firms. Rounding out the top 10 are software giant Microsoft and telecom powerhouse Nokia.
General Motors increased its R&D spending by a whopping 22.7 percent, in spite of the troubled firm’s nearly 13 percent drop in sales. It thus vaulted to second place, up from ninth last year. Nokia cracked the top 10 for the first time, rising to fifth place from 14th; this increase largely reflects the R&D component of its joint venture with Siemens, called Nokia Siemens Networks. Volkswagen has continued its steady ascent moving to 8th fromto last year’s 4th place and from 25th place back in 2002.
The changes in rankings also reflect currency fluctuations, especially the significant weakening of the value of the U.S. dollar over the past few years. Just four years ago, the U.S. dollar was on par with the euro; now it’s worth only about three-quarters of a Euro. And since our table is expressed in U.S. dollars, companies based in countries where the currency has strengthened, like those using the euro, will appear to be spending more than is actually the case. For instance, if the U.S. dollar were on par with the euro, as it was just five years ago, Nokia would be ranked behind IBM (No. 15 on the list as it now stands), instead of 5th. Whether any particular increase in spending reflects additional research activities or simply exchange rate fluctuations is impossible to say, at least without more detailed information about where the company in question does its R&D.