New countries emerge as major players in science

A report from the UK’s Royal Society - the oldest scientific body in the world – says newcomers led by China are challenging the traditional superpowers of science

China’s share in the total number of scientific articles published globally is now second only to the long-time scientific world leader, the US.

A new group of countries led by China and followed by others including Brazil and India, are emerging as major scientific nations to rival the traditional scientific superpowers of the US, Western Europe and Japan, according to a new study by the UK’s national academy of science, the Royal Society.

The study also identifies some rapidly emerging scientific nations not previously recognised as having a strong science base in the modern era, including Iran, Tunisia and Turkey.

The report, Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global scientific collaboration in the 21st century, analysed trends in the number of scientific publications produced by all countries. It found that China’s share in the total number of articles published globally is now second only to the long-time scientific world leader, the US.

The research also highlighted an increase in international collaboration in the conduct of science. Today over 35 per cent of articles published in international journals are involve international collaboration, up from 25 per cent fifteen years ago. The main drivers of this is a desire to work with the best people, who may be based in increasingly divergent locations, the growing need to collaborate on global issues, improved communication technologies and cheaper travel.

Beyond the intuitive benefits of international collaboration, the study identified a clear correlation between the number of citations per article and the number of collaborating countries, up to a tipping point of ten countries. This underlines the value of engaging in international collaboration in terms of increasing the impact of research.

Dominant scientific powers cannot rest on their laurels

Chris Llewellyn Smith, Chair of the Advisory Group for the study, said the scientific world is changing and new players are fast-appearing. “Beyond the emergence of China, we see the rise of South-East Asian, Middle Eastern, North African and other nations. The increase in scientific research and collaboration, which can help us to find solutions to the global challenges we now face, is very welcome.”

But, said Llewellyn Smith, “No historically dominant nation can afford to rest on its laurels if it wants to retain the competitive economic advantage that being a scientific leader brings.”

The study analysed share of the world’s authorship of research papers between 1993-2003 and 2004-2008. Although the US still leads the world, its share of global authorship has fallen from 26 per cent to 21 per cent in this time, while China has risen from sixth to second place, with its share of authorship rising from 4.4 per cent to 10.2 per cent.

The UK remains at third place, although its share of authorship has fallen from 7.1 per cent to 6.5 per cent. Germany fell from 4th to 5th place and its share of publications fell from 7 per cent to 6 per cent. France also dropped a place, from 5th to 6th, with its share of papers falling from 5 per cent to 4.4 per cent. Italy fell from 7th to 8th, whilst maintaining its share at 3.5 per cent. There was some cheer for Spain, which rose from 10th to 9th, growing its share of publications from 2.5 per cent to 2.7 per cent.

Underlining the rise of new scientific nations, India entered the table at 10th for the period 2004 – 2008, with 2.5 per cent.

The Royal Society report also analysed citation data as a method of evaluating the quality of publications. In both time periods, the US leads the ranking, with the UK in second place. However, both have a reduced share of global citations in 2004-2008, compared to 1999-2003. The rise of China is also shown in the data, although the rise does not mirror the rapidity of growth seen in the nation’s investment or publication output.

Rapidly emerging scientific nations

The report found that science is becoming increasingly global, with research undertaken in more and more places and to a greater extent than ever before. In addition to the meteoric rise of China and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and India, the report also identifies a number of other rapidly emerging scientific nations, including:

- Turkey has improved its scientific performance at a rate to almost rival China, increasing R&D spend nearly six-fold between 1995 and 2007, during which time the number of researchers increased by 43 per cent. Four times as many papers with Turkish authors were published in 2008 as in 1996;

- Iran is the fastest growing country in terms of numbers of scientific publications in the world, growing from just 736 in 1996 to 13,238 in 2008. The government is committed to a comprehensive plan for science, including boosting R&D investment to 4 per cent of GDP by 2030, from 0.59 per cent of GDP in 2006;

- Tunisia has increased the percentage of its GDP spent on R&D from 0.03 per cent in 1996 to 1.25 per cent in 2009, whilst restructuring its national R&D system to create 624 research units and 139 research laboratories;

- Singapore has almost doubled its R&D spend between 1996 and 2007, from 1.37 per cent to 2.61 per cent of GDP, whilst more than tripling - from 2,620 to 8,506- its output of scientific publications between 1996 and 2008;

- Qatar, with a relatively small population of just over 1.4 million and a current GDP of $128 billion, aims to spend 2.8 per cent of GDP on research by 2015.

Finally, the report considered the role of international scientific collaboration in addressing problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and alternative energy sources, and how to make collaborations more effective in the future.

Llewellyn Smith said global issues, such as climate change, potential pandemics, bio-diversity, and food, water and energy security, need global approaches. “These challenges are interdependent and interrelated, with complicated dynamics that are often overlooked by policies and programmes put in place to address them. Science has a crucial role in identifying and analysing these challenges, and must be considered in parallel with social, economic and political perspectives to find solutions.”

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Related subjects: Brazil, China, India