Why are there top dogs in global science?

June 18, 1999

In the run up to Unesco's World Conference on Science, Tom Phelan and Stephen Cole discuss their research on national variations in scientific productivity

It is clear that a relatively small group of wealthy nations produce an extraordinarily large proportion of world scientific research. Most experts agree that national wealth and the size of the scientific labour force are two primary influences on national levels of scientific production. These variables, however, do not explain why rates of scientific production vary greatly among nations with similar levels of wealth or why individuals are more prone to choosing scientific careers in some nations than in others.

Several theories have been proposed for understanding national scientific differences. One suggests that some cultures place a higher value on scientific activity than others, specifically that in Protestant- dominated societies, individuals are more likely to choose scientific careers than in Catholic ones.

A second theory is that the structural organisation of a national university system will influence the amount of science produced. This theory suggests that a very competitive and decentralised university system will be more productive than a highly centralised one.

Stephen and Jonathan Cole found that a relatively small number of scientists produced the vast majority of published research and these individuals tended to cite each other. This being the case, why bother educating large numbers of scientists at great expense?

In later research, however, Cole and Meyer examined cohorts of physicists hired in the United States, which vary dramatically over time as funding levels change. The average quality of the work of each cohort was about the same. This suggests that expanding the size of the scientific community remains an efficient strategy for a nation to pursue to increase scientific output.

Our research is based on studies of highly cited articles, of which the US, the UK, Germany, France and Japan were found to be the biggest producers. Switzerland, Sweden and Israel are also big producers of "quality" science per capita. Modern science is dominated by a small number of wealthy countries. (We collected data for 95 countries and a more in-depth analysis of 21 industrial democracies.)

The amount of high quality science a nation produces is strongly related to the number of research scientists in that nation. A number of countries with large numbers of research scientists such as India, China, Egypt, Romania and Nigeria employ relatively large numbers of research scientists, but nevertheless produced only a small amount of highly cited research.

There also appears to be no decline in marginal productivity as greater numbers of scientists are employed within a nation. Nations tend to have an adequate reserve of potential scientific talent and they need not worry that they may lower the quality of science if they expand programmes to train more scientists.

While the size of a nation's economy is strongly related to the amount of highly cited science produced and to the number of scientists a nation employs, this correlation is less than perfect. Israel was found to produce more than five times the amount of high quality research expected. Japan and Italy were found to produce about 40 per cent less.

There is a strong correlation between the amount of funding per capita that a nation spends on basic scientific research and the number of highly cited papers produced. There are two mechanisms through which this money can be converted into science, both of which could be operating. Spending money on research could make science a more attractive occupation - both by increasing the number of positions available for scientists and by paying them well.

The amount of non-salary funding per scientist, however, was found to be unrelated to the average number of papers produced per scientist. Nor was it significantly related to the production of highly cited articles. But could non-salary funding levels in science really be irrelevant?

What appears to occur is that nations with low levels of non-salary funding tend to focus on the production of low-cost science such as mathematics while nations funding science at a higher level concentrate on expensive areas such as experimental physics.

The amount of non-salary funding appears to influence the attention of researchers more than it alters the amount of new knowledge produced. The number of people in a country who chose a career in science was, however, related strongly to salary.

Might a strongly competitive university structure be an important influence on scientific productivity? We found that a nation with many scientific centres relative to the number of science graduates in the country tends to have a higher proportion of its population in scientific careers than do nations with a lower density of tertiary institutions. This suggests that competitive national scientific systems offer more opportunities.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber suggested that Protestant students were more likely than Catholics to study science. In a study of science in 17th-century England, Robert Merton further suggested that Protestant theology promotes values that encourage scientific inquiry.

Examining wealthy industrial countries, it is possible to confirm that the higher the percentage of Catholics in the population, the lower tended to be the production of science even while controlling for national wealth. The positive effect of a nation having a highly competitive university structure, however, was stronger than the effect of religious composition on levels of scientific output.

At the end of the 20th century, the total amount of research that a nation produces is strongly influenced by its wealth. It provides opportunities for talented individuals to enter scientific careers, and the total number of research scientists almost completely explains a country's scientific output.

But other factors are at work as well. University funding levels appear to influence both the numbers of people choosing scientific careers and the intellectual focus of those individuals who become scientists.

Finally, it is worth noting that other cultural and social factors such as dominant national religion and a more competitive university system appear to influence national levels of scientific productivity.

Tom Phelan is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University. Stephen Cole is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. This article is based on a longer analysis by Cole and Phelan, "The Scientific Productivity of Nations", published in the Spring 1999 edition of the journal Minerva.

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