New countries emerge as major players in scientific world

28 March 2011

A new group of countries, lead by China and followed by others including Brazil and India, are emerging as major scientific powers to rival the traditional “scientific superpowers” of the US, Western Europe and Japan , a new report from the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, has found.

The report also identified some rapidly emerging scientific nations not traditionally associated with a strong science base, including Iran, Tunisia and Turkey.   The report emphasised the growing importance of international collaboration in the conduct and impact of global science and its ability to solve global challenges such as energy security, climate change and biodiversity loss.

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

Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith FRS, 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.  However, 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 publication data analysed by the report showed changes in the share of the world’s authorship of research papers between the periods 1993-2003 and 2004-20082.  Although the USA still leads the world, its share of global authorship has fallen from 26% to 21%.  China has risen from sixth to second place, with its share of authorship rising from 4.4% to 10.2%.  The UK remains stable in the rankings at third place, although its share of authorship has fallen slightly from 7.1% to 6.5%. 

The Royal Society report also analysed citation data (records of the levels at which researchers are citing each others’ work in their research).  Citations are often used as a means of evaluating the quality of publications, as recognition by an author’s peers indicates that the scientific community value the work that has been published. 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.

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 identified a number of other rapidly emerging scientific nations, including:

  • Turkey has improved its scientific performance at a rate to almost rival China – the R&D spend has been increased nearly six-fold between 1995 and 2007, during which time the number of researchers increased by 43%.  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% of GDP by 2030 (it stood at just 0.59% of GDP in 2006).
  • Tunisia has increased the percentage of its GDP spent on R&D from 0.03% in 1996 to 1.25% 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% to 2.61% of GDP), whilst more than tripling (from 2620 to 8506) its scientific publications between 1996 and 2008.
  • Qatar, which has a relatively small population of just over 1.4m and a current GDP of $128billion, aims to spend 2.8% of GDP on research by 2015, giving a potential per capita GERD (gross expenditure on R&D) of $2,474.

The report investigated global collaboration, finding that today over 35% of articles published in international journals are internationally collaborative, up from 25% just fifteen years ago.  International collaboration is growing for a variety of reasons including, most importantly, a desire to work with the best people (who may be based in increasingly divergent locations) and the growing need to collaborate on global issues, as well as developments in communication technologies and cheaper travel.  Beyond the intuitive benefits of international collaboration, the report illustrated a clear correlation between the number of citations per article and the number of collaborating countries (up to a tipping point of ten countries), illustrating the value of engaging in international collaboration in terms of increasing the impact of research.

Finally, the report considered the role of international scientific collaboration in addressing some of the most pressing global challenges of our time, concentrating on  the IPCC, CGIAR, the Gates Foundation, ITER and efforts to deploy carbon capture and storage technology.  It looked at the strengths and shortcomings of these models to provide lessons for how international scientific collaboration might be better deployed in future.

Professor Llewellyn Smith commented: “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.”

Publication and citation data for the report was produced by and analysed in collaboration with scientific publisher Elsevier using Scopus citation and abstract data of global peer-reviewed literature.

Read the full report.