Research is now a global game

Which countries are steaming ahead in scientific output and power? Simon Marginson analyses the worldwide data

May 15, 2014

Source: Paul Bateman

One of the most noteworthy trends of our time is the ever-widening geographic spread of research science.

Across the world, more and more countries want their own research universities. More and more journal papers are being churned out, and much of the important work in science and technology is now carried out by large multinational teams.

Research science was an American, British and Western European preserve until Japan joined the global circuit in the 1970s. These science systems still account for nearly all Nobel prizewinners. Yet the next game-changing discovery could originate in Seoul, Shanghai or São Paulo – or in Tel Aviv or Tehran.

If it does, everyone will know about it because the findings will probably be published in English. In the past two decades, global English-language journals have swallowed up the top end of every nation’s work in the physical and life sciences. There are a few holdouts, such as applied engineering research in Russia, which is still published in Russian and remains largely inaccessible internationally, but even there it is probably only a matter of time before it joins the global conversation.

The globalisation of scientific knowledge – the transition of science to a single global system with many branches – is underlined in a recent report from the US National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014.

This shows that, worldwide, the proportion of science papers with international co-authors rose from 16 per cent in 1997 to 25 per cent in 2012. In the UK, a massive 55 per cent of all published papers in 2012 had international co-authors. Collaboration was particularly strong with most European Union members, as well as Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Chile. Collaboration with the US is extensive but less than might be expected given the networking patterns of the two nations.

The NSF data reveal three main world regions of research and development in 2011: the US and Canada, with $453 billion (£267 billion) in annual R&D spending; post-Confucian East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and Singapore not far behind with $448 billion; and Europe well back in third place with nearly $345 billion.

The UK’s expenditure of almost $40 billion was less than half that of Germany (although it is still the seventh-highest in the world). In that light, Britain secures remarkable value for money, especially in university research, where it remains second only to the US in the number of leading universities and papers in Nature.

According to the Nature Publishing Index 2013, published in March of this year, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and University College London were among the 15 research institutions publishing the largest number of papers in the prestigious journal. Cambridge, however, published only 151 sole or shared papers, less than half of Harvard’s 387 papers. Imperial College London, the Medical Research Council and the University of Manchester all figured in the top 50 of the Nature list, with the University of Edinburgh just outside.

However, when looking at shifting patterns of research globally, the front-page story has to be the rise of East Asia. According to the NSF report, China continues to exhibit the world’s most dramatic growth in R&D expenditure, rising by a remarkable 18 per cent per year in real terms in the decade after 2001 to reach $208 billion by 2011 – although less than 10 per cent was allocated directly to universities, compared with  per cent in the UK.

South Korea also stands out. Led by technology giants such as Samsung, it spent almost $60 billion on R&D in 2011, 50 per cent more than the UK despite having only 80 per cent of its population. That amounts to 4.03 per cent of its gross domestic product, a level exceeded only by Israel at 4.38 per cent.

When the inputs are force-fed, the outputs tend to follow. Between 2001 and 2011, the world’s total number of published journal papers grew by almost 3 per cent a year. In China, however, the annual number of papers produced jumped by 15.6 per cent a year, with heavy concentrations in disciplines focused on areas of national concern such as urban infrastructure and systems, transport, communications and energy, as well as engineering, physics, chemistry and computer science. China is weaker in the life sciences, medicine and psychology.

In chemistry, China produced 17 per cent of all papers in 2012, moving ahead of the US, which produced 16 per cent. While it is true that the US had twice as many papers that were ranked in the top 1 per cent by citation rate as did China, the quality gap is closing. In computer science, China produced 13 per cent of all papers but 17 per cent of the most cited papers.

Interestingly, despite the US and China’s economic rivalry and struggle for strategic primacy in Asia, the NSF data also reveal extensive scientific collaboration between the two countries.

Journal output is also growing rapidly in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which, like China, tend to concentrate on physical sciences and engineering.

What about other regions of the world? Research in India is also taking off after a long period of stagnant output in the 1990s. Other nations with burgeoning science output include Brazil, Malaysia and Thailand.

But the fastest-growing science system is that of Iran, whose output of papers rose by 23 per cent a year between 2001 and 2011, led by physics and chemistry. In 2001, Iran’s scientific output was only one-sixth that of its main political opponent in the Middle East, Israel. However, 10 years later, it produced 8,176 papers, compared with Israel’s 6,096. While Israel remains much stronger in terms of citation impact, it is hard to ignore the fact that Iran is pumping up strategic science at an extraordinarily rapid rate.

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