China will be #1 publisher of scientific research in a few years

China could overtake the United States as the world’s dominant publisher of scientific research by 2013, according to an analysis of global trends in science by the Royal Society. The report highlighted the increasing challenge to the traditional superpowers of science from the world’s emerging economies and also identified emerging talent in countries not traditionally associated with a strong science base, including Iran, Tunisia and Turkey…

“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,” said Chris Llewellyn Smith, director of energy research at Oxford University and chair of the Royal Society’s study.

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…”

Projecting beyond 2011, the Royal Society said that the landscape would change “dramatically”. “China has already overtaken the UK as the second leading producer of research publications, but some time before 2020 it is expected to surpass the US.” It said this could happen as soon as 2013.

China’s rise is the most impressive, but Brazil, India and South Korea are following fast behind and are set to surpass the output of France and Japan by the start of the next decade.

The quality of research is harder to measure, so the Royal Society used the number of times a research paper had been cited by other scientists in the years after publication as a proxy. By this yardstick, the US again stayed in the lead between the two periods 1999-2003 and 2004-2008, with 36% and 30% of citations respectively. The UK stayed in second place with 9% and 8% in the same periods. China’s citation count went from virtually nil to a 4% share.

The overall spread of scientific subjects under investigation has remained the same. “We had expected to see a shift to bio from engineering and physics [but] overall, the balance has remained remarkably stable,” said Llewellyn Smith. “In China, [the rise] seems to be in engineering subjects whereas, in Brazil, they’re getting into bio and agriculture…”

Llewellyn Smith welcomed the internationalisation of science. “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,” he said.

Of course, another significant difference in the rate of growth in science around the world will be how the home nation, people and politicians, accept the science as a national treasure – and allot a portion of direction and leadership to the scientific community.

The processes we witnessed in the growth of the Age of Reason in the UK and Europe will very likely serve as models parallel to this new age. Except in the United States.

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