Come quickly Mr. Gibbon, I fear another empire is declining—Some time in the last decade something remarkable happened that has not been discussed widely: the United States may have lost its lead in science and scientific research. Depending on the study, it either happened in 1996 or 1998. You can’t blame the Bush Administration; this goes all the way through Clinton, but at one point, the lead in the percentage of scientific publications attributable to one region passed from North America (the U.S., and Canada) to the European Union.
In many ways, it is part of a demoralization of science in the U.S. Scientists find themselves debating evolution, which makes as much sense to scientists as debating gravity, and were ignored when they tried to introduce science into the Terri Schiavo case. A good Reuters piece today describers this unease.
Measuring scientific productivity is tricky business and admittedly imperfect. Several scales have been developed, mostly measuring the number of publications in scientific journals and the number of times a paper has been cited. The field is called bibliometrics. The best-known scale is the Science Citation Index (SCI). Mainly, it is a database that monitors the journals with the highest impact (most frequently cited) covering most of mainstream science and throws in patents granted. The flaws are clear: the journals are mostly in English and ignore national journals written in other languages, but since English has become the lingua franca of science, that is not necessarily a major problem. The journals also exclude social sciences, but social sciences do not ordinarily have an economic impact on a country.
The best study may be from UNESCO out of Montreal.
North America lost the lead it had in 1996, and in 2000 produced 36.8% of the world’s total [of published scientific papers], a decrease from 41.4% in 1981. The opposite trend can be found in the European Union, which in 2000 published 40.2% of the world total, up from 32.8% in 1981. Japan went up from 6.9% to 10.7% in 2000. Those three areas accounted for 81% of all the scientific publications in 2000, up from 72% in 1981.North America also showed a decline in expenditures in R&D which might have something to do with it. Europe increased its share of publications but it also showed a decline in spending, but that might have been because of a shift in priorities, UNESCO surmised. Asia showed a huge increase in both expenditures and productivity in the same decade. Asia leads in the physical sciences while clinical and biomedical research take up a larger proportion of spending in the other developed countries.
Collaborations murk up the data a bit, but most collaborations are between scientists in the developed world (74%).
In 2000, the last year figures are available, North America produced 214,973 papers, the European Union (EU-25, or the 15 original EU members plus the 10 who joined in 2004) published 234,991. Throw in the former Soviet republics of Europe and central Eastern Europe and the figure grows to 264,829.
In a 2000 article in American Scientist, Antonio Galvez et al used different figures and came to the same conclusion but put the transfer two years later.
Most of the western European countries experienced steady publication growth during this period, largely as a result of scientific programs under the auspices of the European Union. In terms of percentage growth, both Latin America (10.42%) and the Middle East (8.28%) exceeded western Europe (6.3%), but its large facilities allowed western Europe to top the world for total production.[To be continued, and with thanks to Rosalind Reid of American Scientist, who told me about this at the NASW meeting and provided most of the research. It’s nice to have bright friends.]