Material standards of living and the effect on research

If you believe those university rankings, ever wondered why all the top ranking universities are from a couple of countries? Mostly USA, with a couple from elsewhere. (Nowadays the rankings heavily favor research output)

On the surface level the standard explanation seems clear, these countries have a combination of greater resources, research culture, and the policy decisions of the relevant governments for research grants, attracting bright immigrants, less legal burden, etc.

Not all of this stuff is easily quantifiable or measurable at all so I would take that with a grain of salt.

I think there is another factor.

The USA particularly enjoys a very high standard of material wealth. That is the cost per unit quality per unit quantity of material goods is, probably the lowest in the world, coupled with one of the highest average income. Canada is almost the same, maybe with less economy of scale, some additional distribution costs due to bilingualism and population density.

So usually when people say material standard of living they speak about normal consumer goods. Like the size of refrigerators or average size of soft drinks etc.

Doesn’t that also apply to specialty scientific and technical equipment? For example, the largest market for electron microscopes is clearly the US, and the prices are the lowest due to that same economy of scale.

To take an example in proportional terms, the average physics department in the USA might be able to afford 5 research widgets , in Canada and UK, a comparable physics department of the same size might be able to afford 4 and in Japan maybe 3, etc. At the same funding level!

And clearly in practice the material difference is even larger since the average funding level for physics departments is different country to country. So the average physics department in Japan, which has a particularly low amount of government funding for academic resarch relative to GDP per Capita, might only have 2 or even 1 such research widget.

To me it seems that would clearly affect the research outcomes of the department, the level of training received by students, and the amount of work that actually takes place. Assuming equivalently sized departments.

Therefore the amount of consumption, and its corollary the material standard of living, in a country, could serve as a proxy for the consumption of the high tech equipment needed to conduct research.

And all this leads to the conclusion that the consumption of high tech equipment could be a good proxy for the amount of research and innovative work being done when compared on a national basis.

Now obviously there are downsides to a particularly high level of material consumption though I will leave that topic to better qualified writers.

Edited from original post on facebook January of 2019.