Policy brief

Are European firms falling behind in the global corporate research race?

The author looks at how concentrated corporate R&D is in Europe, compared with sales and employment. The US and China are more likely to produce new R

Publishing date
12 April 2018

Technological progress, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, is often blamed for the loss of jobs and rising income inequality. It is also linked to increasing inequality in the corporate landscape as superstar firms forge ahead in winner-takes-most markets.

Our analysis shows that in most sectors there is a high degree of concentration among a few top companies in research and development spending. R&D spending is much more concentrated than sales and employment. In 2015, for example, the top 10 percent biggest spenders on R&D, accounted for 71 percent of the R&D spending of the 2500 companies that spend most on R&D. This concentration is most obvious in the high-tech biopharma and digital sectors, though it is also true for other sectors, such as the vehicles sector. US companies are overrepresented among these R&D superstars, especially in digital sectors where they take up half of the top slots.

Over the last decade, there has been little evidence for increasing concentration in the global R&D landscape. On the contrary, a slight decline is discernible. Slight increasing concentration can only be detected in digital sectors, with in particular the top 1 percent of R&D spending firms in these sectors forging ahead.

Although the overall concentration of R&D spending among a few leading firms might not be changing much over time, R&D leaders are slowly losing their positions to new R&D-leading firms. Digital Services is the most turbulent high-tech sector. The US and China are more likely to produce new R&D leaders that take over some of the top positions from incumbent R&D leaders. This poses difficult questions for Europe, which is at risk of losing out in terms of R&D leadership in more technologically advanced sectors.

About the authors

  • Reinhilde Veugelers

    Prof Dr. Reinhilde Veugelers is a full professor at KULeuven (BE) at the Department of Management, Strategy and Innovation.  She has been a Senior fellow at Bruegel since 2009.  She is also a CEPR Research Fellow, a member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and of the Academia Europeana. From 2004-2008, she was on academic leave, as advisor at the European Commission (BEPA Bureau of European Policy Analysis).  She served on the ERC Scientific Council from 2012-2018 and on the RISE Expert Group advising the commissioner for Research.  She is a member of VARIO, the expert group advising the Flemish minister for Innovation. She is currently a member of the Board of Reviewing Editors of the journal Science and a co-PI on the Science of Science Funding Initiative at NBER.

    With her research concentrated in the fields of industrial organisation, international economics and strategy, innovation and science, she has authored numerous well cited publications in leading international journals.  Specific recent topics include novelty in technology development,  international technology transfers through MNEs, global innovation value chains, young innovative companies, innovation for climate change,  industry science links and their impact on firm’s innovative productivity, evaluation of research & innovation policy,  explaining scientific productivity,  researchers’ international mobility,  novel scientific research.


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