Royal Society Report Documents Globalization of Science

28 March 2011 4:54 pm

LONDON—"Emerging nations are transforming the scene, although traditional powers remain." That's how physicist and former CERN director Christopher Llewellyn Smith today summarized a new Royal Society report on the state of global science. The report, titled "Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century," analyzes peer-reviewed science papers with abstracts in English to assess which countries were claiming slices of an expanding research pie.

China, not unexpectedly, is the most promising new kid on the block. In terms of the world's total research paper output, it leapt from sixth place in 2003 to second place in 2008; today, over 10% of the world's scholarly articles come out of China. The report projects that the country will pass the United States, which currently produces 21% of the world's research papers, within the decade.

To Americans, who have worried about being usurped by China since the National Research Council released its 2007 study, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the Royal Society's findings are hardly news. Llewellyn Smith told ScienceInsider that since the United States was still doing well in science, China's impending ascension should be "viewed as a good thing" rather than as a threat.

The quality of research is a measure separate from number of publications, and the Royal Society report measured it primarily in numbers of citations per paper; here, although citations of Chinese papers have increased over the same period, the rise in quality hasn't been as fast as that of output. The panel members said that it will likely take time before countries recognize the new players such as China as worthy partners and cite their work.

Panel member and former Rolls-Royce executive Philip Ruffles presented foreign patents filed in the United States as a second measure of output quality. Germany and Japan remain the big players, but South Korea "came out of nowhere" and jumped to the number three spot in 20 years. Spain, Israel, and China also moved up in the top 10 ranking. "Just as in science, industry is very much a global activity," said Ruffles.

Llewellyn Smith said that the most surprising finding of the Royal Society report was strong scientific growth in a group of countries not perceived as research powerhouses. Iran, for instance, has increased its yearly number of peer-reviewed science publications from 736 in 1996 to 13,238 in 2008. Turkey tripled the percentage of its GDP spent on R&D in a little over a decade, and the number of researchers in the country increased by 43%, a finding that may add clout to its long-pending bid to join the European Union. Tunisia and Qatar also showed significant increases in research spending; Llewellyn Smith said that it was too early to speculate on how the current spate of political revolutions in Islamic countries would affect these trends.

The report stressed the importance of international collaboration on expensive, unrepeatable projects—CERN and the Human Genome Project being prime examples. Previous research had shown that the more countries that were represented among a paper's authors, the more citations it tended to get. Over 35% of papers published in 2009 now include international collaboration, up from 25% 15 years ago. While scientists' natural tendency to seek out the best researchers, wherever they may be, remains the main driver of this increase, the panel attributed research improvements in Portugal, Austria, and Greece to a concerted effort by the European Commission's Framework Programme, which funds research only if it includes collaboration with an emerging E.U. country. "This top-down approach had an effect," said Llewellyn Smith.

Historically, researchers tackling issues such the hole in the ozone layer and the eradication of smallpox have come together in a highly effective manner. But Llewellyn Smith said that the agreement to collaborate and address these cases was "very simple compared with the threats we face today. Everyone agreed, the solutions were simple, and everyone wanted change to happen." He and other report authors noted that scientists trying to face threats such as global climate change and the preservation of biodiversity face unwanted input from special interest groups and political impedance, and countries that might be unequally affected by these threats have vastly different ideas of how to handle them.

Although collaborative efforts benefit from as many voices as possible, Llewellyn Smith said that it was important for those running such projects, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, to strike a balance between a desire to include everyone and an overemphasis on doing so at the expense of quality science. The solution, he said, is to focus efforts on capacity building in emerging nations so that they can become more effective partners rather than "research labs" for scientific superpowers.

So what steps can the world take to enable omnipresent science? The report suggests concrete measures such as more open-access journals to allow poorer institutions to have access, easing visa restrictions on visiting scientists, and investigating new metrics and analysis techniques that will allow research panels to accurately assess global collaboration.

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