Emerging world on science fast-track

The global balance of science is shifting fast, as research powerhouses emerge in the developing world to challenge the traditional scientific leaders in North America, Europe and Japan.

Although the scientific rise of China, India and Brazil has been well-documented, a new study by the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, identifies other “rapidly emerging scientific nations not traditionally associated with a strong science base”. Several of the newcomers are in the Islamic world.

“A number of countries are challenging the traditional scientific superpowers,” said Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith of Oxford university, who chaired the study team.

“Collectively, these smaller countries will have a big impact.”

In terms of numbers of scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals, Iran is the world’s fastest-growing country. The total leapt from 736 in 1996 to 13,238 in 2008.

Tehran is committed to a “comprehensive plan for science”, including boosting research and development spending to 4 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030. It stood at 0.59 per cent of GDP in 2006. (The European Union, by comparison, invests about 1.8 per cent of GDP in R&D.)

Despite tensions over its nuclear programme, Iran is far from being regarded internationally as a scientific pariah. The number of research papers resulting from US-Iranian collaboration has risen from about 300 to 1,600 over the past 12 years, said Sir Chris.

Both Iran and Israel are playing a role in the Sesame project to build a synchrotron light source in Jordan that will be used by researchers all over the Middle East.

Turkey has improved its scientific performance at a rate close to China’s, with a six-fold increase in R&D spending between 1995 and 2007. Over those 12 years, the number of Turkish researchers increased by 43 per cent, and four times as many papers with Turkish authors were published in 2008 as in 1996.

Among smaller countries, the Royal Society report singles out Tunisia, where R&D spending rose from 0.03 per cent of GDP in 1996 to 1.25 per cent in 2009. Its priority is life sciences and medicine – with an official aim to increase pharmaceutical exports five-fold within five years.

Although the study does not cover the impact of the recent overthrow of Arab autocrats, such as Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Sir Chris said: “I would expect it to have a good influence on science.”

Looking at science globally, two aspects of the report stand out.

First is the rising volume of research, with today’s 7m researchers spending $1,000bn a year – 45 per cent more than in 2002.

Also, collaboration is increasing. The proportion of scientific papers with more than one author rose from 25 per cent in 1996 to 35 per cent in 2008.

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