Many countries, even if they are industrialized and belong to the OECD, EEC/EU, COMECON or EFTA, may themselves be slow followers of the technology leaders. Their economic position may owe almost everything to the past and very little to any contribution, or major adaptation, to modern applied science: in process engineering, in industrial automation, in electronics or in computerization, for example.
The gap in scientific and technological capabilities is widest in areas of direct relevance to the objectives of sustainable development: new energy sources, biotechnology, genetic engineering, new materials and substitutes, non-polluting and low-waste technologies. Before the disruption of development in the 1980s, levels of expenditure on research and development (R and D) in the USA and certain western European countries amounted to about $200 per capita, while the corresponding figure for most Latin American countries was less than $5 per capita and that of the poorer countries of Africa and Asia less than $1. Developing countries paid approximately $2 billion in 1980 by way of royalties and fees, mainly to industrialized countries.
These slow followers may rely on their membership in economically cooperative regional associations or in defence alliances to give them the technological benefits at second hand. However, these benefits will be long-delayed as compared to those arising from national efforts in technology research and development, and there remains a wide technology gap among countries of the North due to a lack of national technology development programmes.
Seen from an international perspective, nations that are behind in technological development are not so because of lack of research and development funding, or that the firms doing the development are too small or that these firms are not protected and adequately assisted by their governments. The returns on R and D investment are too low. Low demand for innovation reduces incentives to innovate. Weak technical infrastructure produces fewer young people who can innovate, produces inadequate links between universities and industry which block information flow. Some countries expend heavily on government research institutions which have neither the incentives of the market place nor the demand for academic excellence of the university, thus reducing innovation. Regulatory costs for new inventions often discourage innovation.